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The Films of Henry Selick

The Nightmare Before Christmas

James and the Giant Peach (August 5/10)

Inventively animated yet hopelessly uneven, James and the Giant Peach follows a young boy (Paul Terry's James) as he moves in with his mean, spiteful aunts (Joanna Lumley's Spiker and Miriam Margolyes' Sponge) after his parents are eaten by a murderous rhinoceros. James' miserable existence persists until he's given a box full of crocodile tongues from a mysterious figure (Pete Postlethwaite's Old Man), after which point the young boy finds himself able to climb inside his aunts' oversized peach - where he meets an assorted group of quirky insects (including Richard Dreyfuss' Centipede, Jane Leeves' Ladybug, and Susan Sarandon's Miss Spider). Filmmaker Henry Selick's efforts at establishing a fantastical, fairy tale-esque atmosphere fall flat virtually from the outset, with the live-action stretch that opens the proceedings setting a surprisingly, almost distractingly low-rent tone that persists for much of the film's running time. And while the movie does improve considerably once it segues into its animated portion - Selick's masterful use of stop-motion is inherently compelling, at least for a little while - James and the Giant Peach suffers from an episodic structure that tends to run hot and cold (ie there's little doubt that certain sequences, such as the troupe's encounter with ghostly pirates, are far more engaging than others). The increasingly pervasive nature of Selick's weird-for-weirdness'-sake modus operandi ultimately cements James and the Giant Peach's place as a creative but thoroughly underwhelming piece of work, with the film's undeniably impressive animation style sure to leave fans of the genre satisfied (while others might find themselves wishing for a more substantial storyline).

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Coraline (February 5/09)

While there's certainly no denying the strength of its sporadically eye-popping visuals, Coraline - based on a children's book by Neil Gaiman - boasts an unapologetically thin storyline that grows increasingly problematic as the movie progresses. The storyline follows the title protagonist (voiced by Dakota Fanning) as she discovers a portal from her dreary world into a mirror universe that's fun and fancy free, although Coraline inevitably learns that such an existence doesn't come without a price. Filmmaker Henry Selick has infused Coraline with an exceedingly quirky sensibility that effectively lures the viewer into the proceedings, as the writer/director does a superb job of employing stop-motion animation as a means of creatively bringing Gaiman's creation to life. The dazzling visuals can only carry the movie so far, however, and there reaches a point at which the off-kilter environment becomes oppressive, with the relentless emphasis on oddball elements and characters ultimately proving oppressive. There's subsequently no getting around the feeling that the film exists solely as an excuse for a series of admittedly impressive set-pieces, which - though thrilling for animation buffs, undoubtedly - invariably winds up testing the patience of the average viewer. Coraline's various problems are exacerbated by its 3D presentation, as the darkened, thoroughly uncomfortable glasses ensure that the viewer is consistently aware that they're watching a movie - thus making it virtually impossible to wholeheartedly embrace the undeniably disjointed narrative. The end result is an artistically accomplished effort that's simply too clinical in its presentation, which effectively ensures that the film's mainstream appeal remains non-existent for the bulk of its running time.

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© David Nusair