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The Fashionably Late Review: Coraline, Monsters Vs. Aliens 

November 8, 2009

(Ed. note: The Fashionably Late Review is a critique of a film released in the last two years — with spoilers, so it can be appropriately reviewed in its entirety. So be warned. If you really wanted to see the following film, you’d have seen it by now.)

There is a moment one arrives at when watching Henry Selick’s stop motion Coraline whereupon the viewer is bound to take a second to think “hold on a second…this isn’t a kids’ movie, this is a horror movie.” That moment is likely to take place at different times for different viewers, but for me it happened around the beginning of the third act, where ghostly children are pleading with Coraline to reclaim their eyeballs, which have been removed before their deaths by a leering netherworld character known creepily as “Other Mother.”

Because let’s face it — if this were a live-action film, let’s say, and Sir Anthony Hopkins was being visited by ghostly children with buttons sewn where their eyes had previously been, I think we can all agree that might be a fairly spooky moment. But Coraline, based on a novel by Neil Gaiman (ahhh, now that explains things), is a Roald Dahl-esque story which exists as a celebration of childhood, a cautionary tale against disobeying your parents, and a twisted, macabre Alice in Wonderland-esque tale.  

One thing’s for sure, it’s one of the most visually arresting animated films to pass through multiplexes in quite some time. Employing a similar technique he also used in The Nightmare Before Christmas (itself just as stunning), Selick goes all out in scenes involving a madcap mouse circus, a beautiful and blooming garden and a loopy stage performance. The bratty, rather unlikable Coraline (voiced by Dakota Fanning), you see, has learned that her parents are more caught up in their own lives than hers, and when she discovers a doorway in her new home to an alternate universe she finds a new world where everything she knows is better, more wonderful, and catered precisely toward her. It’s superior in every way —  until it comes time to pay the piper.

Gothic flair balances with colorful mayhem in Coraline, though for all its visual bravado and ballsy, horrific elements, it’s hard to ever truly become invested in the film as you’re never quite sure exactly what it is — or that it knows what it wants to be. At the end of the day, it exists as a beautiful, interesting, dream/nightmare that you’ll remember being somewhat taken by, even if you can’t precisely remember why.

If Coraline is a movie aimed at children but seems more fitting for adults, Monsters Vs. Aliens should be precisely the opposite. After all, there would seem to be miles of fun one could winkingly mine from the throwback monsters of science fiction’s 1950’s heyday.

And Dreamworks seems, at first, to be game to have that kind of fun. When the hapless Susan (voiced by Reese Witherspoon) is creamed by a meteor on her wedding day, she finds herself growing to humongous sizes and quarantined by the U.S. military along with other “monsters” — a blob, a scientist who has become a cockroach, a water-dwelling lizard man and a Mothra-sized insect/hamster hybrid. Each of the monsters nudges cleverly at a famous sci-fi film (Creature from the Black Lagoon, Attack of the 50-Foot Woman, Godzilla, The Blob and The Fly), though for all the promising greatness that premise could deliver, it forgoes almost all of it to deliver the same tale we see over and over: a group of “misfits” bands together to accomplish something as a team! These creatively-devised charicatures might as well be a dog, a cat, a mouse and a squirrel.

As the plot unfolds, and the government employs the monsters to take on a growing alien threat, a flow-chart of a plot steps in and the personality fades into the background. Where Monsters Vs. Aliens could have inherited the self-aware, pop-culture savviness of Shrek, instead it might as well be Shark Tale or Over the Hedge. It’s a film clearly pitched to the studios as a hit for both children and their parents, and which by all accounts probably looked tremendous on paper, but ultimately devolves into a formulaic cartoon. In the end, both Coraline and Monsters Vs. Aliens fall just short of being great, clever kids’ movies — the former tries so hard to be simultaneously endearing and creepy that it just comes off as merely grotesque, while the latter fails to assume children are smart enough to get the joke. In either case, the grown-ups — and the kids — lose.

One Comment
  1. November 8, 2009 6:49 pm

    As both a responsible parent and a Neil Gaiman geek, I watched Coraline before deciding whether it was for my kids or not. I’ll grant that it took some figuring out exactly what it was, but having peeked at the reviews of the book (which is aimed at kids around ten to twelve) the phrase that kept sticking out was “genuinely scary.” So I had a little advance warning what I was in for.

    My conclusion: I can’t wait until they’re old enough, but it’s going to be a while. Horror stories most definitely have a place in a kid’s education, and kids appreciate a good scare as much as – and perhaps more – than grownups. Unfortunately, movies and their makers have forgotten that, so kids’ “horror” is more silly than spooky, and seeing the real thing is now jarring. Coraline, in my opinion, is most definitely for kids, but finding the right age when you can break it out and give your loved ones the creeps is tricky.

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