Retrospective: Coraline (2009) and Stardust (2007)

Harry Riedl is a film enthusiast from West London and this begins a series of retrospective reviews on his favourite cult classics.

For my first review, I will be looking at two fantastic movies adapted from  the works of eternally cool and renowned author, Neil Gaiman: Coraline (2009) and Stardust (2007).

Coraline finds its origins firmly influenced by Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland. Very true to the book, it’s about eccentric, young Coraline Jones (voiced by Dakota Fanning), who moves to a strange new house with her parents (including a wonderfully annoyed Terri Hatcher) and a very tired, but very fatherly, John Hodgman. The setting is extremely atmospheric and unusually for a children’s movie, it remains in one place throughout.

As Coraline goes on her travels, she meets residents around her new house. The characters are each discovered to have very adult flaws, including her neglectful but loving parents, desperately trying to finish their jobs so unable to give her enough attention. In her boredom, Coraline wonders around the house, discovering a hidden passageway containing ‘another mother’, who provides her with attention and satisfies her every whim, before slowly discovering all is not what it seems with this strange, alternative parent. Dakota Fanning is great as Coraline as she brilliantly expresses an independent and explorative sprit.

The other members of the small cast are similarly innovative, such as Mr Bobinsky (Ian McShane of Deadwood) who plays a huge, rather mad circus performer. Ageing, ex-showgirls Miss April Spink and Miss Miriam Forcible (Jennifer Sanders and Dawn French) also express the unusual nature of the characters in this children’s movie.

One of the most impressive aspects about the film is its art style, which uses stop motion animation to give the impression that the whole movie is sewn together. This is a theme strongly utilized from the opening credits to the final confrontation, adding to the enjoyment. Coraline is joyously true to its source material and even if it may not be considered a classic like many Pixar movies, or be as well known as Shrek or similar big budget digimation flicks, that’s part of its delight. It’s scary and pushes the boundaries, but it’s not too frightening. It’s got a charming look of sewed together stop motion and there aren’t many other children’s movies like it in terms of appearance or its fantastically sinister music.

Stardust is another adaptation of one of Neil Gaiman’s children’s novels but the movie feels vastly different from Coraline in both presentation and appearance. Live action instead of animation, from face value, the premise of Stardust doesn’t seem so remarkable. Standard fantasy MacGuffin magical thing of great power which everyone wants, standard good looking boy who is the great hope and new to the area, links up with a damsel in distress and they beat all comers and make the world a better place. Seems a little clichéd, no?

What may seem an old, tired plot is amplified by the sense of place, both in the magical universe and the familiar world. The wonderful narration of Ian McKellen sets the mood of the movie, which is quizzical and humorous and opens the question: can a parallel world be visited? The opening introduces both the real world and the fairy kingdom, with its strange succession method of sons killing each other until one lives.

Another aspect that makes the film noteworthy is the way the plot jumps from the present day to 19 years in the past, which helps to explore the links between the characters. The relationship between Yvain (Claire Danes, albeit with a bit of a dodgy English accent) and Tristan (Charlie Cox) is particularly compelling, who go through the wonderful rom-com pattern of dislike to true love whilst being chased across a huge magical world. A particularly humorous and touching conversation exists between Tristan and Yvain, who talk about love when Yvain (who is a star) has no experience of human emotion.
With various entertaining characters, the pace and the humour is a real bonus when so many similar fantasy movies feel so po-faced, such as The Golden Compass or Eragon.

At times, Stardust feels like the English-actors-finding-work-club which only adds to its charm, from Mark Williams as a goat, to Ricky Gervais as a comic dodgy salesman, or older veterans such as Peter O’Toole as the king of Stormhold, and even Rupert Everett, David Walliams, Mark Strong as his sons, who all make compelling viewing. And then we have Robert De Niro as a hilarious pirate captain, a closet gay who dances in a dress – need I say more?

Stardust sets the bar for the small genre of fantasy films, which are not Lord Of the Rings or Harry Potter. The music keeps the excitement pumping with a sub-LOTR soundtrack. The Princess Bride is a huge influence on the movie and its literary influences are very clear, even if it’s not beholden to them. It’s a film greater than the sum of its parts and one of those rare adaptations that surpass its source material and it’s no surprise it has a loyalty rare for such a young movie.

Stardust and Coraline present duel worlds, exploring problems in a similar manner of instinct, with help from the inhabitants of the worlds they have entered. Both movies feel unique in hackneyed genres, making them my first two retrospectives. It’s remarkable to note that their origins arrive from the same author as one is a children’s horror story in the vein of Alice in Wonderland and Roald Dahl, while the other is a sprawling epic, albeit compressed and humorous. Neil Gaiman’s work always interests me due to his magical realism. With so many interesting things in unlikely places, his inspiration from classic authors such as Lovecraft and C.S Lewis as well as more contemporary ideas are crafted perfectly.

Article written by Harry Riedl

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