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Thursday, February 05, 2009


PIFF film # 5 - Coraline

I'm a graduate of Nike College, also known as the University of Oregon. While I was working towards my degree, a group of students decided to camp out on the front steps of Johnson Hall to protest university president Dave Frohnmayer's decision to sign a controversial Worker Rights Consortium contract. They held out for ten days and a friend of mine, along with a small band of her fellow demonstrators, staged a sit-in before getting dragged out of Johnson Hall on the heels of having mace rubbed in their eyes by members of the local police department. The whole thing made national headlines and eventually caused enraged Nike founder Phil Knight to relinquish his substantial financial contributions to the school for a number of years. You can read all about the fallout from the protests here.

My contribution to the controversy? I threw a wad of paper at Phil Knight during a basketball game at Mac Court, inspiring everyone around me to do the same. How did Phil deal with this abrupt assault? He got up and walked out without so much as glancing in our direction. A classy response to a bunch of fiesty undergrads.

Knight and Nike are no strangers to controversy. They've been getting knocked around for over a decade for sweatshop labor practices, overpriced sportswear and Knight's decision to pull the rug out from under Will Vinton and partially hand over his Portland film studio to his own son Travis. Coraline, the first film to come out of the renamed Laika Inc has its Portland premiere at the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall tonight at 7:30, a few hours from now. The screening sold out quickly when they went on sale a few weeks ago.

Given the history surrounding Coraline and the origins of the cash that went into financing the film, I guess I should automatically hate it for purely political reasons. After all, wasn't Coraline at least partially made off the sweat and tears of international child labor and Will Vinton's broken dreams?

Regardless of all of that, I gotta call this one like I see it.

As much as it might annoy the former wannabe student radical in me to type this, Coraline is an incredibly well-made animated film. In terms of ambition, story, visual splendor, voice work and characters it rivals the best of Disney and is on the level of Pixar's output. The icing on the cake? It's even set in Oregon. According to The Oregonian the film takes place outside of Ashland (link). That would explain the Shakespearean actors hanging around town when Coraline and her mother go shopping.

Based on Neil Gaiman's New York Times bestselling novel, Coraline follows the adventures of a pre-teen who moves from Michigan to Oregon. Ignored by her workaholic parents, bored out of her skull and disgusted with the Pacific Northwest's gloomy weather, she finds a doorway into a parallel universe much like her own. There Coraline's greeted by her "other mother," the polar opposite of her distant real one who presents her with everything she could ever hope for.

In this alterna-reality Coraline can eat whatever she wants, ride around an elaborate garden in a cricket carriage, visit a circus populated by acrobatic mice and attend nightly performances in a concert hall populated by hooting Scottish Terriers. Even her annoying neighbor, the one who talks to much? In this world he never utters a word. There's just one little problem: everybody in this wonderland has buttons instead of eyeballs.

Of course, nothing in this parallel world is what it seems and Coraline is about to get hit with a substantial amount of fantasyland hassles and headaches. The movie is marinated in the pathos of Gaiman's source material and it refuses to shy away from the novel's Brothers Grimm-esque horrors. Coraline is downright scary. Maybe not on the level of the Pleasure Island sequences in Pinocchio or Bambi's mother taking a bullet but it could traumatize especially timid kids. The tougher tykes are gonna love it though.

Director Henry Selick assembled an amazing crew that put a tremendous amount of painstaking work into integrating Coraline's stop motion animation with its elaborate 3D effects. Reportedly the filming took over two years to complete. Coraline's splendors and set pieces are a pretty trippy treat for the eyes, both normal ones and button ones. At the very least, it's the best set-in-Oregon movie ever made.

Will Coraline out-gross pop-culture reference spewing garbage like the Shrek movies at the box office? Unlikely but here's hoping it's at least nominated for an Academy Award for Best Animated Feature next year.

It's nice to see that Phil's shoe money going to produce a film on this level. Here's hoping Laika continues to rise above its roots and keeps cranking out stuff like Coraline. Sadly, the studio's future, according to this week's cover story in Willamette Week is dicey. Mr. Knight (current net worth, $9.8 billion) recently laid off 65 of Laika's employees in December and is waiting to see how much cash Coraline pulls in before bankrolling a second feature. I guess he doesn't like to lose.

Grade: A

Rating on the PIFF Pretentiousness Meter: 2

Showtimes: It screens tonight at a sold-out screening at the Schnitz and opens in theaters around Portland tomorrow.


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