James and the Giant Peach: Blu-ray Review

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New Blu-ray release offers improved picture and sound quality but little in the way of additional bonus features.

Riding on the delightfully cobwebbed coat-tails of Tim Burton’s THE NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS, poor JAMES AND THE GIANT PEACH was probably predestined to be a disappointment, for what film could possibly live up to that level of expectation? Even with the NIGHTMARE team of director Henry Selick and producers Tim Burton and Denise Di Novi reassembled, it was unlikely that the mad scientist’s lightening would animate a new creation of equal quality.
Sad to say, JAMES AND THE GIANT PEACH not only failed to meet unrealistic expectations; it was also an under achiever on its own terms. Although a technical marvel of production design, stop-motion animation, and other special effects techniques, the film is felled by annoying characters, flat songs, and a limp screenplay straining to pad a slim story out to feature length. The bottom line is that it lacked the magic that made THE NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS a joy to watch again and again.
The reason for this becomes clear during the fist act’s live action sequences. The notion that young James became an orphan when a rhinoceros gobbled up his parents is awkwardly handled by depicting the rampaging rhino as a cloud. After that, the film finds its tone; unfortunately, that tone can best be summed up as “annoying.” The live-action scenes of James being mistreated by his aunts, Spiker and Sponge (Joanna Lumley and Miram Margoylyes), are achingly unfunny despite the obvious attempt to portray the campy pair as vile villains of the black comedy variety.
James and the Giant Peach (1996): James with insect palsWhen James escapes from Spiker and Sponge in the giant peach of the title, the film shifts to stop-motion. The transition is smoothly handled, adding an extra level of fantasy to the material. Unfortunately, James’s new friends, a small group of insects, turn out to be almost as annoying as his aunts, especially the brash-talking centipede voiced by Richard Dreyfuss. James himself is a fairly non-descript character, whom the others praise for his cleverness, even when he is doing only what is obvious. His big scene, confronting the rhinoceros that gobbled his parents, plays like a hollow victory, because we can see that he is merely yelling at a dissipating cloud – not the most courageous act of heroism ever recorded on camera.
As if sensing that the third act needs something more, the script throws in a ridiculous scene in New York, where the peach lands on top of the Empire State Building – only for James to be met by his aunts, who have apparently driven beneath the Atlantic ocean in their beat-up old car! What is clearly meant to be taken as a hysterically surreal moment is too obviously an awkward writer’s device, providing an opportunity for the aunt’s to get their come-uppance at the hands of James’s insect friends. But this is par for the course: the entire script feels like an episodic grab bag, with occasional threats and obstacles showing up randomly just to give the characters something to do.
JAMES AND THE GIANT PEACH deserves credit for attempting to translate the wicked, semi-scary tone of Roald Dahl’s children’s book to the screen; unfortunately, the attempt fails, creating an odd mix of the whimsical and the weird that feels less like an audacious conflation of contradictory elements than an awkward jumble, a point too often underlined by Randy Newman’s score, which becomes the audio equivalent of someone repeatedly elbowing you in the ribs to remind you how wonderful and amazing all of this is supposed to be. Perhaps Dahl’s combination of childhood fantasies and fears is difficult to realize on screen, but THE WITCHES (1990), directed by Nicolas Roeg, proved that it can be done without diluting either element.


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click to purchase DVD

Disney’s new special edition 2-disc combo pack (Street Date: August 3, 2010) includes JAMES AND THE GIANT PEACH on both Blu-ray and DVD. The picture quality on both is quite nice. Of course, the high-def Blu-ray transfer is superior; however, the picture quality of the 1996 film is not up to the standards of more recent films when transferred to the high-def medium. The result looks very good, but it does not pop off the screen in the same way that the Blu-ray discs own menu features do.
Unfortunately, both discs feature what Walt Disney Pictures likes to call “Fast Play,” which is touted as an “easy start up without using a remote control.” What this means is that, instead of going immediately to the main menu, the disc immediately starts playing promos and trailers for other Disney products, through which you must chapter stop to get to the film you actually thought you were purchasing. This is not so much a problem with the DVD, but it is annoying with the Blu-ray, which has a longer loading time – god forbid you should accidentally push the Eject button midway through the movie, and then have to go through the whole loading process again.
Both discs port over bonus features from the 2000 special edition DVD release: a making-of featurette (actually a promotional puff piece); a trailer; a Randy Newman music video; and several extensive photo galleries, divided up into Concept Art, Puppets, Behind the Scenes, and Live Action. In addition, the DVD includes a trailer for THE NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS, which is not available on the Blu-ray.
The only new feature actually on the Blu-ray disc is a videogame that allows you to earn points by manipulating a rhinoceros to head-butt Aunts Spiker and Sponge. It’s amusing for a minute or two; little kids may enjoy it a while longer. The Blu-ray disc is also BD-Live enabled, which allows you to access more material via an Internet connection to your Blu-ray player.

NOTE: According to the 96% rating at Rotten Tomatoes, my view of JAMES AND THE GIANT PEACH is clearly in the minority. You can get a second opinion on the film, courtesy of Mike Lyons, by clicking here.


Coraline-director Henry Selick signs with Disney-Pixar

Henry Selick with a stop-motion puppet from CORALINE
Henry Selick with a stop-motion puppet from CORALINE

Variety reports that Henry Selick (who wrote and directed last year’s Oscar-nominated stop-motion hit CORALINE) has signed a deal to make films for Disney-Pixar. Selick worked for Disney back in the 1990s on TIM BURTON’S A NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS and JAMES AND THE GIANT PEACH. The later film was a box office disappointment, prompting a Disney exec to conclude that there was no future for stop-motion.
Fortunately, decades alter, Disney’s animation head honcho John Lasseter feels differently. Ironically, Lasseter created Pixar animation, whose computer-animated blockbusters such as TOY STORY seemed to sound the death knell for stop-motion. Hiring Selick to make stop-motion films is part of Lasseter’s recent strategy of reviving old-fashioned, traditional forms of animation, which also includes the hand-drawn cell animation used in last year’s THE PRINCESS AND THE FROG.

2nd Annual Wonder Awards Winners

Zoe Saldana is the Wonder Awards choice for Best Actress, in the Best Pic winner, AVATAR.
Zoe Saldana is the Wonder Awards choice for Best Actress, in the Best Pic winner, AVATAR.

It’s Sunday, March 7, and everyone is wondering what the winners will be. Well, wonder no more, because here are the official winners of this year’s Cinefantastique Wonder Awards. Oh sure, other people are tuning into the Oscar telecast to see whether Sandra Bullock takes home an Academy Award, but for aficionados of horror, fantasy, and science fiction cinema, the Wonders are the awards that really matter, because they offer a chance to recognize great films that are often denied Academy Award nominations because of their genre affiliation.
Of course, this year is a bit of an exception, because the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has nominated two science fiction films for Best Picture, AVATAR and DISTRICT 9, along with one animated fantasy, UP. With several other Oscar nominations in technical categories, the genre has at least a fighting chance of winning some recognition from Academy voters.
Nevertheless, the Wonders are the true measure of achievement in the genre, voted on by experts with a life-long love of horror, fantasy, and science fiction – and more important, voted on by those imbued with that all-important Sense of Wonder.



  • James Cameron for AVATAR


  • Neil Blomkamp & Terri Tatchll for DISTRICT 9
  • Pete Docter, Bob Peterson (story by Docter, Peterson & Thomas McCarthy) for UP


  • Saoirse Ronan in THE LOVELY BONES


  •  Robert Downey Jr in SHERLOCK HOLMES
  • Sam Rockwell in MOON


  • Vera Farmiga in ORPHAN


  • Jackie Earle Haley in WATCHMEN






  •  Henry Selick for CORALINE


  • Mauro Fiore for AVATAR


  • James Cameron, John Refoua, Stephen E. Rivki for AVATAR


  • Michael Giacchino for STAR TREK


  • MOON


The Score: Bruno Coulais and the Musical Magic of Coraline

Bruno Coulais’ score for Henry Selick’s 3D-animated film, CORALINE,  is an enchanting enactment for orchestra and choir, which brings to wonderful life the magical environment and story concocted by the brilliant author Neil Gaiman. The music features a perfectly appropriate blending of unusual instruments (mechanical piano, electric bass guitar, jazzy flutes, what sounds like a child’s xylophone, squeaks and squeals and all manner of bells and percussion oddities) with both adult and children’s choirs and a pervasively eloquent harp which is liberally spread throughout the length and breadth of the movie. The inclusion of a cute if very short song by the band They Might Be Giants fits nicely within the overall sensibility of Coulais’ music. This is a wondrous score, melodically intriguing, instrumentally engaging, and completely intoxicating.

Coulais, 55, was trained in classical music in Paris but gravitated toward film music through the suggestion of several acquaintances. He was asked to compose music to a documentary film by director François Reichenbach in 1977, but his first foray into feature films was in Sébastien Grall’s film, LA FEMME SECRÈTE, released in 1986. He had scored more than fifty films and television works when his music for the 1996 documentary film, MICROCOSMOS, brought him to international attention. His ability to provide music of eloquent grace and beauty for this new breed of artistic documentary with limited narration was further solidified with WINGED MIGRATION (2001), GENESIS (2004), and THE WHITE PLANET (2006).

Bruno Coulais has been equally adept in scoring dramatic subjects, such as 2001’s horror-fantasy, BELPHÉGOR – PHANTOM OF THE LOUVRE (2001), VIDOCQ (2001), and SECRET AGENTS (2004). His nearly 150 film scores to date have covered nearly every genre and embraced all manner of musical styles. Known for his use of ethnic instrumentation and human voice, Coulais is among the new breed of French composers – Alexandre Desplat, Armand Amar, Philippe Rombi among them – providing notably expressive work in contemporary cinema.

One of the first things to be noticed about a Bruno Coulais score is that one barely resembles another. From the energetic drama of VIDOCQ with its malevolent darkness and twisted chambers of sonority to the haunting ethnic melodies of the adventure drama HIMALAYA (1999) or the eloquent classical choir work that gave such poignancy to LES CHORISTES (2004, THE CHORUS, which earned him his third César Award), Coulais relishes films that allow him to become as varied as possible.

In CORALINE, director Henry Selick’s impressionistically animated interpretation of Neil Gaiman’s short story,  an adventurous but lonely girl named Coraline (“Not,” she reminds everyone, “Caroline”) finds a mirror world that turns out to be a strangely idealized version of her own, but one whose sinister secrets soon keep her from returning home. It was Selick’s style of animation (ala his work on THE NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS and JAMES AND THE GIANT PEACH) and the way in which the film was shot that gave Coulais his initial inspiration for the kind of music the film would need, rather that its nuances of story and fantasy.

“At first, I don’t attach myself to the narrative because I think music must be another character of the film,” he said. “I’m sensitive to the light, to the mood, and everything that you cannot see directly.”

Coulais devised his enchanting instrumental design according to Selick’s visual interpretation of the story, which gave the strange alternate world of Coraline’s home and its button-eyed denizens a menacing clarity.

“While watching the pictures of CORALINE, I was struck by the extraordinary pictorial invention as well as the different stratum of the film: the routine/the fantasy, the epic side/the dark side, the fear, etc. and I agreed with Henry Selick, that we must use a wide musical range in order to realize all these diversities,” Coulais said. “The challenge was to make emerge a musical unit in spite of these different stylistic [elements] and I believe that the themes have played this part.”

Once he had established the musical design of CORALINE, Coulais developed the score to coincide with Coraline’s journey, her descent into the darkness of the world beyond the bricked up wall inside the drawing room door (where her button-eyed Other Mother has entrapped her), her heroic attempts to escape from that world and save her real parents, and her ultimate redemption and triumph.

“Once I wrote the main music themes of the film, I tried to work in a chronological order so I could respect the film progress,” he said. “I needed to start from a realistic, routine mood and then go into a fantastic mood, becoming more and more frightening. It was important to make the music evolve with the story. The first themes, like the one illustrating Coraline’s first visit in the house, seem peaceful in order to make the character’s world more realistic. But then the bizarreness and the anxiety take over. Some funny and absurd bits join the music. But even from the beginning there are some musical touches that make us understand we’re not in a completely realistic film.”

Coulais composed and recorded his score in France while communicating with Selick in Hollywood. Selick had used his music from WINGED MIGRATION and MICROCOSMOS as temporary music while building his final edit of CORALINE; although Selick didn’t expect Coulais to mirror those scores in his original compositions for CORALINE, this temp track gave the composer a kind of referential shorthand that let him know the type of music Selick had in mind for his film.

“Despise the distance and the language barrier, I’ve rarely felt so close to a director,” Coulais said. “Henry explained what he was expecting from the music for each sequence. Once the demo was done, I sent him an mp3 file to listen to. He gave me his first impressions and then, later on, his final remarks once the music was edited in by [film editor] Christopher Murrie.”

Bruno Coulais (Photo Credit: Hotspot)
Bruno Coulais (Photo Credit: Hotspot)

For Coulais, the most challenging aspect of scoring CORALINE was keeping pace with its shifting tone and supporting its sense of mystery and menace – and doing so with music that conveyed both mysterioso and emotional expressions. “There are two sequences which for me, were extremely important,” said Coulais. “The first sequence is the mice Marching Band on which I tried to write a score where the density and the scale were that of the mice, using all kind of instruments like toys, Chinese instruments, child’s brass and child’s piano, but also instruments of a traditional Marching Band. The second and the most important is for me the sequence between Coraline and the Other Mother where I intended, in spite of the malevolency of the Other Mother, to bring a certain emotional level to the scene.”

Like much of Coulais’ film music, his CORALINE score sounds like nothing else he has written, embodying a musical character and style all of its own. Coulais believes this is possible due to the wide range of films he has been able to score, and the willingness of directors not to impose certain strictures upon him.

“A kind of schizophrenia exists because sometimes a composer gravitates to the idea of being at the service of the film; sometimes he inclines to write the most personal music as possible,” Coulais said. “However, some movies allow the composer to be as free as possible in the writing of the music score. I am of course unable to define my style, but I can say that I am attracted to strangeness, and to the hybrid mixing of human voices and instruments. Although, I do also like to work with homogeneous instrumentation, like a string quartet.”

SUPERNAL DREAMS: CORALINE in 3-D "looks so much better with the glasses!"

As is usual for animated films, CORALINE was completely storyboarded, allowing for a great deal of thought about where the camera should go for each and every one of its approximately 1,500 shots. This careful pre-planning allowed director Henry Selick to come up with some beautiful camera moves (and angles), as well as determine the best way to use 3-D in each shot. The result (to echo Leonard Maltin), is the best use of 3-D I’ve ever seen.
Unfortunately, the majority of past movies that were made in 3-D have been pretty awful. In fact, over the entire history of 3-D, you’d be hard pressed to name more than a dozen really good movies. Some featured exciting action sequences; some had great 3-D effects, but most were very bad, if judged strictly on their merits as movies. As DreamWorks animation chief Jeffrey Katzenberg recently noted while promoting his newest 3-D movie, MONSTERS vs. ALIENS, “The one thing 3-D can’t do is make a bad movie into a good movie.”
So CORALINE is a rare double treat, because it works as a very good movie seen in 2-D, but becomes even more spectacular when seen in 3-D! In fact, CORALINE is the first stop-motion animated feature that was actually conceived to be photographed in 3-D. It’s what director Selick calls “a fully immerse three-dimensional movie-going experience,” adding, “The technology of today’s 3-D really can now be called ‘stereoscopic,’ because audiences can now look at things with both eyes as we’re designed to do as human beings anyway. 3-D captures the complete stop-motion world that we, the moviemakers, want to share with our audiences. With CORALINE, we are using 3-D to bring audiences inside the worlds that we create, and convey the energy that our miniature sets exude for real. It’s about that, rather than having gimmicks like things flying off the screen all the time. We do have some of those, but sparingly.”
Indeed, Selick wisely uses the 3-D effects in quite a miserly way. The opening and closing credits give audiences most of the more eye-popping moments, while the movie itself doesn’t use the kind of gimmicks that would merely take the viewer out of  it’s carefully constructed fantasy world.
Cinematographer Pete Kozachik explains that the 3-D moments had to “support the story and were carefully scripted for short bursts, rather than lengthy set pieces. We were advised, ‘It’s more about opening up space, rather than bringing stuff up in your face’.”
To that end, the cinematographer invoked the advice of two of his mentors; Academy Award-winning visual effects artists Dennis Muren (“one shot, one thought”) and Phil Tippett (“what’s the shot about?”).
Since the story of CORALINE involved parallel worlds, an interesting concept that Selick might have been tempted to follow was to use regular 2-D for one world, and have viewers put on their 3-D glasses when Coraline visits the Other World.
However, Selick felt that it would be much more consistent to convey the differences in the two worlds by subtle changes in style. He explains, “In the world that Coraline lives in, we made the sets more claustrophobic. The color is more drained out, since her life should feel flat. When she gets into the Other World, the sets may look similar but we built them deep and more dimensionally. We also tone up the color a bit, and move the camera more. In her real life, the camera is locked down and it’s like a series of drab tableaus. Her real life feels like a stage play. So the Other World feels more ‘real’ to her – and to the audience.”
Of course, CORALINE can and will be shown in 2-D at some theaters, but as Dakota Fanning enthuses, “It looks so much better with the glasses!” And be sure to sit through all of the end credits to see a final burst of amazing 3-D effects “Coming at You!”

See the 26 different CORALINE posters online here.

Coraline – Film Review

CoralineWhether you go through the looking  glass, down the rabbit hole, over the rainbow, or into the labyrinth, you are bound to encounter wonders beyond your imagination, sights and sounds that impress the senses and embed themselves upon the brain with all the enchantment of a beautiful dream, but somewhere in our minds we know that dreams are not real and that if something seems too good to be true, inevitably it is. This is the simple lesson of CORALINE, the amazing new stop-motion film from Henry Selick (director of Tim Burton’s THE NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS), but like all truisms, the very simplicity lends power to the moral; the old familiarity makes us feel as if we are re-learning something that was known and then forgotten, and in doing so we regain an important part of ourselves that was lost: a little piece of childhood imagination, a renewal of our Sense of Wonder. This is especially true when the lesson is painted in vivid hues that spark the imagination, that take the abstract concept and bring it to life. This is the triumph of CORALINE.
The opening titles perfectly set the tone – both fanciful and grim – as spidery metallic fingers perform surgery on an old doll, retrofitting its appearance for what we will eventually realize is a new victm. Coraline is a bored young girl who has just moved into a new home far from her old city life. Mother and Father are too busy writing a catalogue to pay much attention; fortunately – or so it seems at first – Coraline discovers a small doorway to a parallel world, where everything seems the same, only better. The “other” Mother and Father cook tasty meals instead of boring health food, and the lavish their daughter with love and attention. However, there are ominous hints for those with eyes willing to see – such as the fact that all the alternate characters have buttons instead of eyes. Like Pan’s Labyrinth, this alternate reality offers no real escape; gradually, this dreamworld of bliss and childish fun will transform into a nightmare world of horror, and Coraline will have to take a big step toward adulthood if she hopes to escape.
Typically, modern entertainment aimed at families and children tends to be told from a romanticized adult perspective that glosses over the emotional traumas of childhood. CORALINE, like the best fairy tales, dives right into the deep end of the dark pool, drowning its audience in uncanny images guaranteed to send a shiver down the spine: a cat crunching on a cute mouse (that turns out to be a rat in disguise) or the “Other Mother’s” eyes being clawed from her face. The sense of childish vulnerability in the face of unbridled malevolence lends CORALINE all the shuddery effectiveness of a horror movie; in fact, it would be no exaggeration to say that this is, in fact, as good as or better than any horror film we have seen so far this year.
The little joke embedded in the storyline is that the traditional figure of the Wicked Step-Mother is blurred and doubled. Coraline’s real Mother conforms to the stereotype, neglecting the girl, refusing to purchase finery for her, smf speaking in harsh reprimands that ignore the child’s need for affection. The Other Mother at first seems to be the “Good Mother,” the one who will supply all of Coraline’s childish needs. But this Goodness is really an illusion – or rather a mistake in perception. Like all selfish children, Coraline defines Good in terms of what is good for her, ignoring that there is a price to pay and that the well being of others must also be taken into account.

Coraline is indifferent to the plight of the mute Wybie.

This first becomes apparent in the figure of Corline’s annoying neighbor, Wybie, who in the Alternate World has been permanently silenced by the Other Mother. Coraline’s concern is at best fleeting – she hopes the process didn’t hurt – but by the end of the tale she will have reached a point where, even when her own safety seems assured, she will put herself at risk to aid others. Like Peter Pan, she has (figuratively) flown away from home, looking for something better; also like Peter, she comes to regret her decision and flies eagerly back to the safety of the nest, only to find the safety gone. In Peter’ case, he was locked out, his parents having moved on; in Coraline’s case, her parents are gone, forcing her to rescue them (along with a trio of the Other Mother’s previous childhood victims).
Fortunately, Coraline has an ally or two. Besides Wybie, there is a feral feline, identified simply as Cat in the credits, who speaks in the Alternate World, doling out useful advice, and who also joins the fray at a crucial juncture. Whether intentional or not, the cat seems like the next step in evolution from the stop-motion kitty first glimpsed in Tim Burton’s short “Vincent” before reappearing in the Burton-Selick collaboration NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS; a similar cat also showed up in Burton’s CORPSE BRIDE.
At last, the cameo kitty has been given a major supporting role. There is something special and amazing about animals in a fantasy context, their familiar behaviors at once recognizable and also transformed into something more human, and without overdoing it, Selick plays up the Cat for all its worth, celebrating the importance of a friend in need without sugar-coating the relationship. Late in the film, the Cat tries to block Coraline from taking a risk and she all but kicks it out of the way – not out of cruelty but because she is past the point where her own personal safety is paramount to her. It is a moment that hurts emotionally, even while we understand why it happened.
This kind of sophistication is laced throughout the film, which  is filled with unpleasant but understandable actions that imbue the characters with a fallible humanity. Especially Coraline’s Mother and Father make mistakes, but we know they are not bad people; they are simply under a deadline that forces them to be abrupt, even curt, with her. This unvarnished view of the worl, seen through a child’s eyes,  is a big part of what makes CORALINE special – and also helps distinction Selick’s work from that of Tim Burton.
In Burton’s films, the bizarre and the strange seldom have much genuine menace to them; for example, Halloween Town is an whimsical place, where the residents proclaim that scaring people is their job but “we’re not mean.” CORALINE has a bit more of a jagged, unpleasant edge to it; with it Selick succeeds at crafting a film that successfully stirs darker themes into what might have been a simple fantasy (an effort at which he failed in MONKEYBONE).
The voice cast is excellent, especially Keith David as Cat. Terri Hatcher does a fine job  at delineating the different and overlapping aspects of both “Mother” and the “Other Mother.” The look and feel of the stop-motion animation – an old-fashioned technique polished to perfection here – is easily the equal of any computer-generated imagery; it perfectly suits the story, capturing the bizarre and horrifying elements while rendering them in terms appropriate for a fairy tale. And a special mention must go to the music by Bruno Coulais; often sounding like a haunting lullaby, it captures both childish innocence and and underling sense of the sinister.
The film is not perfect. Too often the pace is slack, especially in the early scenes. In attempting to portray Coraline’s boredom, Selick comes dangerously close to boring the audience. Fortunately, interest accelerates after Coraline discovers the Other World, but even then some of the highlights are so high that the intervening moments seem like let-downs. This occasional unevenness seems to be a result of trying too hard to lay the foundation and follow through carefully on all the plot points, when the film’s real strength lies in its darkly demented fairy tale trappings. This is a film where dream-logic should prevail, not a strict adherence to Dramatic Structure 101, but on the other hand, the careful approach allows us to engage fully with Corline as a character, ensuring that the film is as moving emotionally as it is beautiful visually.
It has been a rocky road for Henry Selick since NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS. After that early promise, JAMES AND THE GIANT PEACH and MONKEYBONE suggested Selick might turn out to be a one-shot wonder. CORALINE puts that concern safely to rest. Like the best movies allegedly aimed at children, it reminds adults that childhood is a time not only of fascination but also of fear -even if those fears are only of shadows and of nightmares rather than real danger.  Eventually we overcome that fear, but its echo lingers deep in our memory. Somewhere inside us, our child-self still lives, but it cannot be summoned with only sugar and sunlight, which feels too much like a comforting lie. CORLINE mixes the dark and the light in the perfect amounts; the result is all the sweeter for having dared to tread the bitter path of childhood fears and uncertainties that led us all to adulthood.
Coralines Other Mother turns out not to be so nice.
Coraline's "Other Mother" turns out not to be so nice.

CORALINE(2009). Written for the screen and directed by Henry Selick, based on the novel by Neil Gaiman. Voices: Dakota Fanning, Teri Hatcher, John Hodgman, Jennifer Saunders, Dawn French, Keith David, Robert Bailey Jr, Ian McShane.

Monkeybone (2001) – DVD Review

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Having launched his career with the weird and intriguing MTV short subject “Slow Bob in the Lower Dimensions” (the first of what was supposd to be several episodes that, never, alas materialized), Henry Selick followed up by directing one of the most charming fantasy entertainments ever created for the screen, Tim Burton’s THE NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS (1993). Selick not only evinced a formidable technical expertise, employing stop-motion and other effects to create images at once bizarre and beautiful; he also showed a seemingly sure hand for employing that expertise in the service of the greater good: creating a film that worked as a whole, not just a series of set pieces. He seemed to be a major new talent in the field of cinefantastique.
Unfortunately, Selick’s next directorial outing was a severe disappointment: JAMES AND THE GIANT PEACH (1996) displayed the same impressive technical accomplishment, but the movie was an unengaging technical tour-de-force that prompted CFQ’s Dan Persons to note that looks “can only go so far” while criticizing the “formless story” and “flat characterizations.” 2001’s MONKEYBONE continued Selick’s downward career trajectory; not merely a disappointment, the film is a complete disaster that bombed with both audiences ($7.6-million worldwide gross on a $75-million budget) and with critics (20% approval at Rotten Tomatoes).
The terrible ticket sales prompted a typical round of the Blame Game, with filmmakers anonymously pointing fingers at 20th Century Fox for not supporting the film’s release, but even a casual glance at MONKEYBONE reveals serious flaws that rendered potential success virtually impossible. In a nutshell, Selick and company attempt to delve into darker, more adult territory, but they operate with all the sophistication of an immature kiddie flick, resulting in a film that appeals to neither parents nor their children.
The tone is set immediately in an animated prologue that depicts grade school student Stu Miley becoming sexually aroused by his overweight teacher’s flabby arms. Obviously intended as a comical scene about sex, the scene is neither funny nor sexy, prompting neither laughter nor arousal but only disgust. As a plot point, the sequence serves its function (Stu’s arousal led to the creation of a cartoon character named Monkeybone, representing his id), but the entertainment value is virtually zero.
The remainder of the film operates on the same level, serving up a series of scenes that are dull or uninteresting when they are not simply mildly repugnant. Stu (Brendan Fraser) is a successful cartoonist who winds up in a coma just as his Monkeybone character is being launched in a new animated series. His soul ends up in Dark Town, which is populated by a variety of bizarre characters, including Monkeybone, who manages to catch a ride back to the real world, where he inhabits Stu’s body, putting the moves on Dr. Julie McElroy (Bridget Fonda). Stu eventually manages to get back to Earth, occupying the body of a dead gymnast (Chris Kattan) and sending Monkeybone back to Dark Town.
All of these scenes roll on without any rhythm and with no consideration for whether or not they are working. No one involved with the film seems to have considered the fact that there is nothing funy about seeing Monkeybone possess Stu’s body and attempt to seduce Stu’s fiancee; the very concept is repulsive. That Fraser plays the scene by acting like a monkey (which Monkeybone himself seldom if ever does) only makes it worse. The gymnast sequences may have been funny out of context, but this late in the film they come across as desperate attempts to enliven a moribund film.
There is also an unnecessary plot complication: Julie is a sleep expert, whose experiments will create nightmares; Hypnos (Giancarlo Esposito) wants the formula to revitzlied Dark Town, so he double-crosses Stu, helping Monkeybone escape from Dark Town in his place. This takes up screen time but adds nothing vital to the story. Monkeybone is the kind of character who should act alone, on impulse, not as part of some conspiracy.
Rose McGowan goes feral as Miss Kitty.
Rose McGowan goes feral as Miss Kitty.

The film throws so much at the audience that, inevitably, a few entertaining moments do stick, but they are few and far between. Miss Kitty (Rose McGowan) registers mostly as a teen-age boy’s fantasy – female sex appeal outfitted with a few feline accoutrement’s – but his sudden transition into feral ferocity (killing a guard to help Stu escape from Dark Town) is the one moment when the film’s attempt to twist its colorful imagery into something dark and twisted actually works.
Monkeybone may have had the potential to be a memorably off-the-wall character in the manner of other unleashed maniacs (think of THE MASK or Buddy Love in THE NUTTY PROFESSOR), but he is only obnoxious. Characters of this type usually intrigue because we are invited to enjoy their antics even as we disapprove of them, but nothing about Monkeybone is enjoyable. The rest of the characters are little better. Although we sympathize with Stu’s situation, he does not register much as a personality, and Bridget Fonda’s fressh-faced appeal is the only good thing about Julie.
The sets and special effects do provide some interesting sights, but they can be enjoyed far more easily in the trailer. Having created the potentially fascinating world of Dark Town on screen, Selick and screenwriter Sam Hamm simply have not managed to tell an interesting story in that setting. The problem is not that their approach was too adult for audiences expecting a family-friendly fantasy; it is that their “adult” approach displays a sad lack of maturity.


The special edition DVD presents the film with solid technical credentials, including a good image transfer and a 5.1 mix in both DTS and Dolby Digital. Extras include a photo gallery, a trailer, TV spots, 7 animation studies, 11 deleted scenes, and an audio commentary.
The “animation studies” show early rough versions of the effects sequences, accompanied by optional commentary from Selick, providing some insight into how these scenes are put together.
Ten of the eleven deleted scenes feature optional commentary by Selick. Mostly these are extended scenes rather than totally new material. In fact, considering the rumors that circulated about last-minute re-editing after disastrous preview screenings, it is surprising how relatively insignificant the additional footage is – no more than one would expect from the usual trimming for time. They offer no indication that the film underwent major surgery and only serve to remind us that, as poorly paced as the movie is, it could have been even worse.
Henry Selick’s audio commentary is the most interesting bonus feature. He provides plenty of information about how the special effects were achieved, along with behind-the-scenes stories about working on the film. Unfortunately, Selick seldom comes to grips with what is wrong with MONKEYBONE. He explains away the bad reception by suggesting the film was too sophisticated and adult (unlike the pure simplicity of Tim Burton’s work). The one notable exception comes when he admits to some reservations about the sub-plot involving Julie’s sleep experiments. Even with this caveat, Selick’s commentary is informative and entertaining enough to make it worth your while to sit through MONKEYBONE again, whether or not you liked it the first time.
MONKEYBONE (2001). Directed by Henry Selick. Screenplay by Sam Hamm, based on the graphic novel Dark Townby Kaja Blackley. Cast: Brendan Fraser, Bridget Fonda, John Turturro, Chris Kattan, Giancarlo Esposito, Rose McGowan, Dave Foley, Megan Mullally, Lisa Zane, Whoopi Goldberg.

Supernal Dreams: Enter the enchanted world of CORALINE

Henry Selick’s film of Neil Gaiman’s book ranks alongside the classics of fantasy filmmaking

10 years ago, in February, 1999, Cinefantastique celebrated the 100th anniversary of stop-motion with the publication of a special double issue. At the time, it looked very much like stop-motion might be poised to go the way of the dinosaur, as CGI threatened to make it obsolete as a viable movie form. However, director Henry Selick never stopped believing that stop-motion was still the best way to make certain animated movies. Now, 10 years on, Selick has proved his point most spectacularly with an adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s book CORALINE.
Selick and his cadre of talented animators (Anthony Scott, Travis Knight, Trey Thomas and Eric Leighton) have toiled away for four long years, and the result has to be considered (to borrow an ad line from THE 7TH VOYAGE OF SINBAD), “nothing less than a miracle in motion pictures!” Indeed, I’m sure that CORALINE will thrill all stop-motion aficionados to their bones. One reason for this, no doubt, is that Henry Selick has managed to make the film so appealing to all ages. When, for instance, was the last time you heard a lengthy quote from Shakespeare in an animated film? As a result, I daresay CORALINE can rank alongside such classics of fantasy filmmaking as Jean Cocteau’s BEAUTY AND THE BEAST and Alexander Korda’s THE THIEF OF BAGDAD.
So special thanks for this success must go to all of the studio executives at Focus Features, along with producer Bill Mechanic, for shepherding such a time-consuming project to it’s successful fruition. Unfortunately, these days there simply aren’t that many producers like the late Charles H. Schneer, who can guide a stop-motion picture to completion.
Below are some of director Henry Selick’s comments about the film (from the press notes), along with excerpts from my interview with Mr. Selick, taken from CFQ’s special stop-motion issue.

What a piece of work is Man! How noble in reason! How infinite in faculty! In form and moving how express and admirable! In action how like an angel! In apprehension how like a god! The beauty of the world! The paragon of animals! And yet, to me, what is this quintessence of dust? Man delights not me: no, nor woman neither, though by your smiling you seem to say so.

—Shakespearian actresses Miss Spink and Miss Forcible, while performing in a theater for 248 Scottish Terriers and Coraline.

HENRY SELICK: When I first read Neil’s manuscript, I was struck by the juxtaposition of worlds; the one we all live in, and the one where the grass is always greener. This is something that everyone can relate to. Like Stephen King, Neil sets fantasy in modern times, in our own lives. He splits open ordinary existence and finds magic.
Coraline is very appealing to me, and I hope that she will be very appealing to children seeing the movie for a variety of reasons. She’s brave and imaginative and has got an overwhelming curiosity; if she sees something interesting, then she has to know about it. I loved that her ‘grass is always greener’ scenario turns out to be scary. When Coraline – an ordinary girl – faces real evil and triumphs, it really means something, as Neil has said.
Neil invites the reader in to participate in Coraline’s adventure, and I wanted to do the same for the moviegoer. This was an ideal opportunity to take all I know about storytelling through animation, bringing those tools to bear on a story with a strong lead character. Neil was there with help and advice right from the start, yet was not overly precious with his book and would step away when I needed to focus. You want to honor the important parts of a book in adapting it, but you also have to invent and change as well.
LAWRENCE FRENCH: John Lasseter was telling me that one of the things he has discovered is that people are inherently fascinated with the idea of miniature worlds. Whether it’s in CGI, stop-motion or in model railroads and cars.
HENRY SELICK: That’s probably what drew me into stop-motion, after having been a 2-D animator first, and having come to stop-motion from that tradition. I can’t get around the fact that you actually see the world in front of you, three dimensionally, lit, with the puppet there on the set. It may not be moving, but you know it’s going to be brought to life in the camera. I love that tactile, touchable realness of the miniature world. It’s something you can never get with drawn or computer animation. I’ve always loved Ray Harryhausen’s work, George Pal and later on Starewicz. I’d always loved it, but I didn’t really know how to do it, so I gradually shifted from one form to the other.
LAWRENCE FRENCH: Besides Starewicz, you also like a lot of the eastern European animators, don’t you?
HENRY SELICK: Yes, I love Jan Svanjkmajer, who did FAUST, and CONSPIRATORS OF PLEASURE, that’s quite a brilliant piece of work. It’s 90% live action and incredibly entertaining, and he uses stop-motion in a very powerful way for the climax. He’s one of my all time heroes. The ideas behind the animation in his films are always really powerful. He’s the inspiration for the Quay brothers. And in Jiri Trinka’s film, THE HAND, he has a really free spirited character.
LAWRENCE FRENCH: How do you define good stop-motion characters?

: That’s hard to say. For me, I’d say the more stylized or simplified way you go, combined with really believable acting. That’s where you find the best characters developing. The way the puppet moves has to make it really seem to be alive, depending on both the design and how well it’s lit. But I’ve never really gone for realism. I’ve never had the job of doing realistic effects for a film.
LAWRENCE FRENCH: Are you committed to stop-motion over the long haul, depite the rise of CGI?
HENRY SELICK: Yes, I love stop-motion, so I’m pursing projects in stop-motion. I’ve talked to people about them, but it’s got to be the right story and done economically, so it can continue to be commercially viable. Also, now with the help of video cameras, and computers, it’s easy to do stop-motion on your own. I have a 13-year old nephew who has a camera with single frame capability, and he’s making movies. He goes from live action to animated figures, and edits in the camera. It’s so simple. You can animate aluminum foil, blobs of clay, G.I. Joe dolls, anything! So I always think there’s going to be some kid doing stop-motion, it’s so accessible and low-budget. Over the years, most of what has been done in stop-motion is pretty awful. Not just a little bit bad, but usually very bad, and that really bothers me. When that gets out, it can really hurt the reputation of stop-motion. We are in this era of BEAVIS AND BUTTHEAD where animation is the last thing on the list of what’s important to those shows. I’m committed to it, but I’ll have to take it a step at a time. I also need to do what I need to do to survive. I almost feel that Phil Tippett, in his heart, still is dedicated to stop-motion, but he’s also not foolish, so he’s going to do what he has to do, to continue making his brilliant special effects.
LAWRENCE FRENCH: Phil Tippett told me that his argument for using stop-motion was you would get the input of one animator in creating a character.
HENRY SELICK: Yes, that’s right, because very often one animator could do the entire scene. You cast the animators, just as you’d cast actors. Sometimes according to characters, or sometimes according to the scene. Trey Thomas, who is a kind of motorcycle guy, ended up doing a lot of the most delicate female animation to Sally in THE NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS. Josephine Haung did the most gorgeous close-ups of James face, in JAMES AND THE GIANT PEACH.

Coraline trailer

CORALINE is the upcoming stop-motion fantasy film from Henry Selick, director of the uber-wonderful Tim Burton’s THE NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS. Selick’s follow-ups, JAMES AND THE GIANT PEACH and MONKEYBONE, have come nowhere near matching that initial blaze of glory; fortunately, this time out he is working from a piece of source material by Neil Gaiman, about a young girl who finds a mysterious door in her home that leads to a parallel world. Originally slated for December 2008, the release date has been pushed back to February 6, 2009.

Nightmare Before Christmas – Film & DVD Review

Tim Burton’s THE NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS gets another go-round in theatres beginning this week. Last year, the film was digitally enhanced with 3D for its annual Halloween reappearance. Disney puts the film into its El Capitan Theater in Hollywood every year; for 2006, the 3D presentation warranted  other theatres around the country – a tactic being repeated this year. If you have yet to see the 3D version, you should not miss this second opportunity. The results are not spectacularly eye-popping. Because NIGHTMARE was not designed as a 3D movie, there are few of the obvious sight gags we associate with the process: a couple of ghosts seem to float out of the screen early on, but there are no objects hurtling straight into our eyes. Instead, you perceive a wonderful depth and dimensionality to the stop-motion characters, as if looking into a window on their world. The digital enhancement seems to have sharpened the image, making everything seem real enough to touch. The beauty of the imagery – which contrasts the moody Halloween Town with the brightly colored land of Christmas – is more breath-taking than ever before, even if the characters are not leaping off the screen into our laps. 
Tim Burton`s skewered sensibility finds excellent expression through the masterful stop-motion of director Henry Selick. The songs and score by Danny Elfman are wonderful; the characters are engaging; the visuals are enthralling. Amidst all the weirdness of Halloween Town, the film still strikes a wonderful sentimental chord, emerging as a wonderful Christmas movie even more than a wonderful Halloween movie. Even the muted romance between Jack Skellington and Sally is poignant, and Jack`s reawakening to the joys of being the King of Halloween is invigorating.

A technical marvel of special effects, the film is also magical and beguiling in a way that few films ever are. Credit is due to all the wonderful talent assembled by Burton: especially stop-motion director Selick, composer Elfman, and screenwriter Caroline Thompson. Their combined efforts make this one of the greatest fantasies every committed to celluloid. Despite availability on VHS, laserdisc, and DVD, this is a film well worth seeing on the big screen again. In fact, why not turn it into a Rocky Horror-type experience and start singing the lyrics out loud along with the rest of the audience?
One of the great things about this movie is that it’s not afraid to be creepy, yet at the same time it has a warm and lovable feeling about it, although sometimes that seems to be more apparent to younger viewers. Let’s face it: any film that has parents saying it’s too scary for their children, while the children themselves love it, has something going for it.
Another interesting point is that, in a curious way, the film is a companion piece to JURASSIC PARK (which also came out in 1993), in that both are about the limits of intellect: JURASSIC’s John Hammond mistakenly thinks he and his staff can plan for every exigency and control the consequences, whereas Jack Skellington thinks he can know Christmas without really understanding it. In trying to analyze this alien (to him) holiday, Jack misses its spirit (or gestalt, if you prefer a less metaphysical term) and, unable to find it, mistakenly concludes that it doesn’t exist. Jack’s attempt to reinvent the yuletide season is somewhat less disastrous than Hammond’s attempt to recreate the Jurassic Period, but he nonetheless learns his lesson, and by the end, has found a renewed vigor for returning to what he knows best: being the Pumpkin King of Halloween.
All this may be a bit too intellectual for a film that truly is just a joy to watch. So just sit back and enjoy.


The The Nightmare Before Christmas “Special Edition” DVD is filled with the same extras and supplemental material that should mad fans drool when they appeared on laserdisc; the DVD basically replicates everything from the magnificent laserdisc box set, except the price: the laserdisc ran for about $100; you can own the DVD for closer to $20.
In either format, this presentation really is the last word on the film. Of course, DVD picture quality is, technically, superior, and you don’t have to get up and change discs (there were three to contain the film and the supplemental material). On the other hand, the laser presentation was more lavish in terms of packaging: the set came in an impressively sized box, with a rich velour interior, which also contained the coffee table picture book The Film, The Art, The Vision: Tim Burrton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas, written by Frank Thompson. The book, with an introduction by Tim Burton and the complete lyrics by Danny Elfman, was quite a prize in and of itself, filled with behind-the-scenes photographs and information that would fascinate any true fan of this classic film masterpiece. Needless to say, that tiny CD case has no room for this lovely item.

Other than that, the two packages are almost identical in terms of content: a “making of” documentary, animation tests, deleted story boarded sequences not filmed, deleted scenes, an alternate ending with a surprise revelation about the identify of Oogie Boogie, a still frame archive, early pencil tests, audio commentary by director Henry Selick and director of photography Pete Kozachik, and three great short subjects: Tim Burrton’s “Vincent” and “Frankenweenie” and Henry Selick’s “Slow Bob in the Lower Dimension.”
As a film, The Nightmare Before Christmas is probably the greatest achievement of Tim Burrton’s career, but that credit must be shared with his many collaborators, including director Henry Selick, composer-lyricist Danny Elfman, and screenwriter Caroline Thompson. The making-of documentary helps gives some insight into the various contributions of these people, while tracing the origin of the project back to Burrton’s days at Disney (when he hoped the project would be a half-hour holiday TV special, along the lines of Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer). You’ll also get a glimpse of the “frame-grabber” that helped elevate the quality of the stop-motion animation to new levels. Basically, the device allows the animators to reference the previous five frames of animation, in order to make sure that the puppet’s next photographed position will blend together for a smooth illusion of movement when projected.
The audio commentary by Selick and Kozachick is dense and informative; in fact, the only problem is that, with literally every shot being an elaborate special effect, there is not time for them to dwell on specifics—each images ranks only a few brief comments, and then it’s on to the next. Still, this is hardly much of a problem, as the film is then followed by a making-of documentary and loads of behind-the-scenes footage that fills in the details that have been only briefly discussed in the commentary. Curiously, throughout most of the film, it sounds as though Selick and Kozachick were recorded separately and then edited together, with their voices carefully alternating back and forth; only near the end do they finally overlap and actually address a comment or two to each other, revealing that, yes indeed, they were recorded together. Presumably, they realized they didn’t have time for chit and chat, and most likely they stopped and started the recording several times in order to make their comments as to-the-point as possible. One only wonders whether Kozachick’s verbal references to the “laserdisc” will survive on DVD. (At one point, he suggests spending a Saturday afternoon counting the number of shots in the movie, which he reckons to be near 800.)
The storyboards show some interesting material, including an abandoned last-reel revelation that Oogie Boogie was supposed to be Dr. Finklestein in disguise. This twist was wisely abandoned, as it adds nothing to the plot; it’s just one of those movie moments that’s there because—well, audience expect twists endings, right? Deleted footage contains some early test scenes, without the final dialogue as heard in the finished movie; in fact, it sounds closer to Burrton’s original poem, which formed the basis of the story (and was later published as an illustrated book).
The three short subjects throw some light onto the creative input of Burton and Selick. Burrton’s “Vincent,” in particular, reveals a visual style that is strikingly similar to Nightmare (there is even a briefly glimpsed cat that looks the same in both films), and the black-and-white Universal horror pastiche of “Frankenweenie” also foreshadows some of the monochromatic imagery of Halloween Town. Selick’s “Slow Bob,” on the other hand, has a more brightly colorful palette, suggesting both Nightmare’s Christmas Town setting and also Selick’s later feature film, James and the Giant Peach.
Of the shorts, Slow Bob and “Frankenweenie” are both charming efforts, and you’ll be happy to own them as part of this disc. But the real stand-out is “Vincent,” a wonderfully ghoulish little gem that resonates like a film version of Burrton’s twisted tales as seen in his book The Melancholy Death of Oyster Boy, and Other Stories. Structured like a music video, the film is set to a series of verses that tell the tale of Vincent, a young boy who wants to emulate his hero, Vincent Price (who reads the narration on the soundtrack). The images segue and shift to keep pace with the verses, switching back and forth between Vincent’s real life and his imaginary one (think of Calvin and Hobbes, if conceived by Gahan Wilson, Charles Addams, and Gary Larson). My personal favorite is “Vincent performs experiments on his dog Abercrombie/In the hopes of creating a horrible zombie.” A mini-masterpiece, it’s almost worth buying this disc just for this short subject.
In short, whether on laserdisc or DVD, this package is a must-have for fans, presenting an excellent film with a multitude of extra features and supplemental material. Somehow, the large-sized box set seemed a more appropriate package for such a wonderful collectors edition, but that little DVD fits much more easily onto your shelves.

Jack Skellington tries his boney hand at filling in for Santa.

TIM BURTON’S THE NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS (1993; 3D versio 2006). Directed by Henry Selick. Story by Tim Burton, adaptation by Michael McDowell, screenplay by Caroline Thompson. Voices: Danny Elfman, Christ Sarandon, Catherine O’Hara, William Hickey, Glenn Shadix, Paul Reubens, Ken page, Edward Ivory.