New on DVD, Coraline is a near masterpiece of darkly surreal fantasy from stop-motion animation filmmaker extraordinaire Henry Selick (The Nightmare Before Christmas).
Based on the children’s fantasy/horror novella by Neil Gaiman, Coraline’s original inspiration was stories made up by Gaiman’s young daughter Holly about a girl (named Holly) whose mother is kidnapped by a witch who resembles the mother.
With clever use of parallel worlds and fairy-tale tropes, Coraline explores the dark side of wish-fulfillment fantasies, monstrous distortions of parental affection and the perennial wisdom of gratitude for what one has, however imperfect. Not to all tastes, but as a modern-day equivalent to the Brothers Grimm, Coraline is a rare achievement.
Also new on DVD, Spectacular Spider-Man — The Complete First Season offers all 13 episodes of the sharply written new animated series on two discs.
The episodes pit the teenage hero against a battalion of foes, including the Lizard, Green Goblin, Doctor Octopus, Sandman, Black Cat and the alien-suited Venom. The battles aren’t mindless violence: Pete’s brains and science chops are his edge. (How to slow a rampaging lizard at the zoo? Make him chill out in the polar bear pool.)
The writing isn’t perfect: Eddie Brock is too decent in the early episodes to credibly become the villainous Venom. But the series’ overall decency is also a key strength. Friendship, responsibility and love are important themes; Aunt May is a warm and wonderful authority figure, and the late Uncle Ben, seen in a fantasy/flashback sequence, represents Pete’s moral compass. Highly recommended.
Finally, a couple of ambitious mature fantasies to pass on:
Alex Proyas’s apocalyptic thriller Knowing got some attention in Christian circles for the biblical resonances of its imagery. It’s a sincere effort, but it botches its philosophical dichotomies (determinism vs. randomness isn’t equivalent to meaning vs. meaninglessness) and doesn’t hold together plot wise. Not without interest, but I can’t really recommend it.
Like its source, Watchmen, Zach Snyder’s lavishly faithful adaptation of the highly acclaimed graphic novel by Alan Moore, is a work of considerable density and sophistication, a deconstruction of the superhero genre. Unfortunately, it also follows its source in succumbing to nihilism — and amps up the sickening violence and sexuality already present in the graphic novel. Avoid it.
CONTENT ADVISORY: Coraline: Disturbing domestic themes in a fantasy setting; creepy imagery, scary scenes and menace to a child; a couple of instances of divination (dowsing, tea leaves); a scene of mild burlesque-style humor. Might be okay for adventurous kids. Spectacular Spider-Man: Much fast-paced animated action violence, menace and scary images; romantic complications; a fleeting suggestive remark. Fine for all but very sensitive kids. Knowing: Disaster imagery (people and animals on fire, corpses amid wreckage, etc.); limited profanity and crude language; a couple of mild suggestive comments. Watchmen: Graphic violence; some sexuality; sexual and other violence against women; profanity and much obscene and coarse language.