What You See Is What You Get

Photo: Courtesy of Focus Features

The film adaptation of a book can be nearly perfect on its own terms and yet subtly off, as in Henry Selick’s exquisite, entrancing, very occasionally enervating movie of Neil Gaiman’s Coraline. Frame by frame, it’s a treat. Selick employs old-fashioned stop-motion animation (Yay! Puppets!) enhanced by computers and extended to the bridge of your nose by state-of-the-art 3-D (in roughly half of all theaters—choose one of those); Bruno Coulais’s music pirouettes nimbly between child-choir enchantment and Night on Bald Mountain dread. You should see it—especially if you’re tired of boisterous animated joke-fests like Bolt and crave a bona fide fairy tale. I feel like a goblin under a bridge when I grumble, but I could have done with a touch less entrancement and a touch more … story.

In his novel (which is stupendous), Gaiman devises an eerie variation on the familiar over-the-rainbow parable: A lonely little girl, transplanted to a rambling old country house and neglected by her parents, discovers a tunnel in the wall that leads to a parallel universe—where she finds a nearly identical mother and father who dote on her. Indeed, this new world seems to revolve around Coraline: Goodies appear at her command, mice serenade her, flowers rearrange themselves to form her face. But there are hints of malevolence: Her “Other Mother” (as the woman refers to herself) has black buttons in place of eyes and a widening streak of possessiveness. Gradually, we discern the psychological truth. The Other Mother’s overbearing love has nothing to do with the child and everything to do with her demonic need for control. It’s a careful-what-you-wish-for tale with a powerful testimonial to self-reliance.

Gaiman’s prose is plot-driven: The prose is plain, which makes the swerves into fantasy so disarming. He’s artful, but he’s not a stylist, whereas Selick is all style. Breathtaking style, to be sure. Working with the Japanese illustrator Tadahiro Uesugi, Selick comes up with a look that’s part Tim Burton (Coraline’s elongated house is right out of Beetlejuice), part Pinocchio. The sets are like dollhouses that open up and float you in. The puppets have wide, smooth faces on stick legs and necks, and their barely perceptible jerkiness makes the movie feel lovingly handmade. Coraline’s features under her turquoise hair are simple yet beautifully articulated: Watch her face when she sees Other Mother for the first time—and how it contrasts with the less mobile, masklike visage of the scarily familiar alien.

As I drank in the phantasmagoria, the surreal music-hall routine, the flower dances, the giant grasshopper ride, the heroine’s endless prowls around artificial landscapes, I kept wondering what I was missing. It might be as basic as emotional focus. The pace is barely varied, and instead of becoming a spitfire detective (as in the book), Coraline drifts around in a daze. Selick saddles her with a playmate—a curly-haired boy with a souped-up, sci-fi-worthy scooter—and her initial impatience with him makes no dramatic sense: It’s the lack of contact with kids that helps drive her into that alternate universe. Selick botches the climax by having the boy roar back and deprive Coraline of her ultimate triumph. Did he need a male character to keep this from being a, you know, girl picture?

Selick has a great fantasy filmmaker’s artistry, but he lacks that overflowing Geppetto-esque love that brings puppets to life. In Coraline, he’s woozy with his own lyricism.

In Taken, Liam Neeson plays Bryan Mills, an ex–Jason Bourne–like spook who wants to make amends for being an absent dad to his 17-year-old daughter, Kim (Maggie Grace), so he whines and pleads with his chilly ex (Famke Janssen) not to let her travel to Paris with her rich girlfriend. It’s a bad world out there, he insists—a bad, bad world. You don’t know. I know. Believe me. I’ve seen things. You don’t want to know. Dismissing him as a hysteric, Kim jets to France and is promptly—I mean, she doesn’t get to pee—snatched by Albanian sex-slavers for sale to sheikhs and sundry other wealthy sadists. This is where Dad gets to prove that he can karate-chop the windpipe of one Albanian while taking out three more with a paper clip, a wad of gum, and a hard stare. (I exaggerate, but not by much.)

The script, by Luc Besson and Robert Mark Kamen, panders to macho American wet dreams that feel distinctly antiquated in the new age of American non-exceptionalism. And in a just universe, the idea that rich white American virgins are the prime targets of sex-slavers would make tens of thousands of captive underage Asian girls rise up shouting, “That is the last straw!” I would leave it there except that Taken—in the hands of director Pierre Morel (District B13), with Neeson in nearly every shot—works like gangbusters. The Frenchies have made the filet mignon of meathead vigilante movies.

Morel stages the action so cleanly that even when it hurtles by fast—almost too fast for the naked eye—the killings have a satisfying snap. There’s no fussy slo-mo, no vulgar splatter, just blasts, breaking bones, and baddies who barely hit the floor before the hero has moved on to the next Albanian wave. But it’s the big, dolorous Neeson who makes the movie a keeper. He does not gloat, he does not preen. But neither is he a blank terminator. His motivation is clear: He wants his daughter back. (What’s your motivation, Liam? I want my daughter back.) As he gives instructions over the phone to Kim, cowering under a bed as Albanian footsteps approach, his focus is uncanny. He is stripped down to pure, righteous, patriarchal American genius.

In his finely tuned first feature, Medicine for Melancholy, the young writer- director Barry Jenkins has a gift for getting into the heads of his two African-American protagonists, Micah (Wyatt Cenac) and Jo (Tracey Heggins), who’ve just had a drunken one-night stand. Following an awkward parting, Micah tracks Jo to the well- appointed apartment she shares with her (white) lover, who’s in Europe, and his mixture of humor, attentiveness, and appeals to her racial guilt get under her skin. The movie unfolds over the next 24 hours as the couple bikes around San Francisco, a city with a dwindling number of blacks, and Micah gives voice to his resentment at being exiled, symbolically robbed of his potency. Jenkins is so desperate to give his love story a social and economic context that he stops the movie cold for a bunch of unrelated white people to articulate their grievances over gentrification—it’s as if Annie Hall had paused for a seminar on agrarian reform. Otherwise, the politics are woven into the (fraught) love story; the black-and-white palette (with faint hints of red) endowing every wounded look, glower, and twitch of longing with the weight of the world.

Directed by Henry Selick.
Focus Features. PG.

Directed by Pierre Morel.
Twentieth Century Fox. PG-13.

Medicine for Melancholy
Directed by Barry Jenkins.
IFC Films. NR.

E-mail: filmcritic@newyorkmag.com.

What You See Is What You Get