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Story of a Girl: Coraline

Director Henry Selick, writer Neil Gaiman, and moppet Dakota Fanning team up in this superb 3-D fantasy that will enchant the whole family.

coralineCoraline Jones stands nine-and-a-half inches tall.

She's impeccably dressed in a blue and silver sweater with a turtleneck, covered in stars, knitted personally to her measurements. Her blue hair is a mix of acrylic strands and wire, similar to the type of brightly colored wig that's dug out of the closet every Halloween. She has a line across her face, at the cheeks, and to hear animator/writer/director Henry Selick tell it, the line's so that her face can be switched out, taking off one mask for another, for 200,000 + potential facial expressions—and she'll need them all in Selick's new 3-D stop-motion animated film, Coraline.

Despite the unsightly slash across her face, Coraline is completely adorable. Based on the novel by the Newbery Award-winning English author Neil Gaiman—who has a devoted following of adults and children alike (check out his blog)—Coraline makes the regular fantastic. The story starts with a bored little girl (voiced by Dakota Fanning) who just moved to a big old drafty house in Oregon. Ignored by her parents (voiced by John "I'm a Mac" Hodgman and Teri Hatcher), our heroine finds a secret portal to "Other World," another dimension filled with suave, loving parents and fantastic visions. The Other World is marvelous and magical, so much so that Coraline doesn't quite notice that something is off. The Other Mother (again, Teri Hatcher), with her buttons for eyes, may love her daughter too much, and her love may end up being quite dangerous. As Coraline falls deeper into this world, and relies on her own wits and strength to get out of this stunning and creepy pickle, we're taken on a 3-D adventure.

Selick has a short resume in film—highlighted by The Nightmare Before Christmas, a classic film in the right circles—though he says every movie of his is "like a child, and very, very demanding." His work as a director, which usually involves animation and stop-motion, has always been identified with innovative visuals and weird worlds. He reclines in a hotel room, holding up his Coraline doll, looking for all the world like a gentle version of intense character actor William Fichtner (a guy who usually plays cops and criminals, famous for roles in Prison Break and Go). Imagine Selick as an uncanny version of  Fichtner; Fichtner-as-dentist, perhaps. While it may be a bit cliché to point out, he has the hands of an artist: they're elegant and expressive, with long fingers. You would think that he could've made his bones as a dentist, orthodontist, or someone who excels in minutia for lots of money. "I like working with people," he says, "but not on them. In college I was interested in many different types of art. Animation brought my interests together. It's a slow process, but rewarding."


Getting Coraline to the screen took about eight years, and according to Selick, the last four years were where the filmmaking process intensified. At one point, the film was a potential musical, and nerd-rockers They Might Be Giants were working on demos and songs. While that didn't pan out, one of TMBG's songs remain in the finished product, when the Other Father sings a song for his daughter. Hodgman "really wanted to sing it, he did a million takes, but there's this ease that John [Flansburgh] has. [Hodgman] has this persona as the Other Father. I asked him to do his best Dean Martin and it came out Bing Crosby." The film may have changed over the years, but the long process, including a shoot that lasted for twenty months, led to a thrilling final result: according to Selick, they created "memorable characters on screen, and we advanced the art of stop-motion animation and 3-D."

coralineSelick has had a long history with 3-D, including a "bad rock video ['Camellia'] made 20 years ago with Marty Balin from Jefferson Starship." (Selick's other video work includes Fishbone's "Party at Ground Zero.") In the case of Coraline, Selick felt that it would be the "best way to enhance going into the Other World." 3-D brings out the difference in the sets, as well—for Coraline's drafty, boring, mundane daily life, the sets were about three feet deep, but when she's in the Other World, the puppets are working on a recreation of the other set, rendered in a different scale: eight feet deep. Selick says this touch "is better, like you can breathe more." He's old friends with 3-D pioneer (and "Puff the Magic Dragon" lyricist) Lenny Lipton, and talking with Lipton about recent advances in the technology took film into the next dimension. "3-D shows off this particular medium," said Selick. "This stuff is real and handmade. At the end of the film we turn up the 3-D to another level to increase the tension."

According to Selick, it's "early days of modern 3-D cinema. It's in its infancy. We started the film with a fairly deep credit sequence. I didn't want to punch people in the face." Wearing the glasses forces the audience to pay more attention to all the fantastic detail in the film. The Oregon landscape is a big thing in Coraline, and certain details, like painted thistles and popping popcorn, found their way into the film, reanimated. "When I'd go to Longbottom Coffee [in Hillsboro, Oregon] on my breaks, I'd walk by these strange weeds and thistles. Eventually one day I just grabbed them and painted them."

The creativity and care of Selick's work can be seen in every frame of Coraline. While the film is a delightful entertainment, there's another plus to the staggering set work and exquisite miniatures that make up Ms. Jones' world: "We have the best tour in animation," says Selick. "You can see all the sets, the lights, and the puppets." It's certainly worth a trip to Oregon.

Coraline opens on Friday, February 6.

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