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CORALINE – Bruno Coulais

February 6, 2009 Leave a comment Go to comments

Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

Coraline is the latest film from Henry Selick, the man who actually directed Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas. Like its illustrious predecessor, Coraline is a stop-motion animation, several years in the making, and is based on a story by acclaimed fantasy author Neil Gaiman. The film follows the adventures of a young girl – the eponymous Coraline – who, after discovering a secret passage in the wall of her parents’ new apartment, finds a magical, mysterious – and occasionally quite frightening – alternate universe where cats can talk, everyone has buttons for eyes, and she has a whole set of ‘other’ parents, who want to Coraline to stay in ‘Other World’ forever. The film features the voice talents of Dakota Fanning, Teri Hatcher, Jennifer Saunders, Dawn French and Keith David, and has an original score by French composer Bruno Coulais.

Following his Oscar nomination for his work on Les Choristes (The Choir) in 2003, I had expected Coulais to become a more familiar musical voice in Hollywood. He’s certainly proved he has a great deal of talent and versatility throughout his career, tackling everything from action thrillers (Les Rivières Pourpres/The Crimson Rivers) to wildlife documentaries (Microcosmos, Winged Migration), but for whatever reason it never quite happened. Coraline is actually Coulais’ first Hollywood studio picture, but whether it will provide that breakthrough remains to be seen; it’s possibly the oddest mainstream score I have heard in quite some times, and I really can’t make up my mind whether I like it, whether I’m fascinated by it, or whether it’s just so bizarre I want to keep listening to it to make sure I’m not hallucinating.

People often label Danny Elfman as the master of the musically macabre, but there’s really nothing in his filmography which compares to the strangeness of Coraline. At first glance, the musical make-up of Coraline seems fairly straightforward: the Budapest Symphony Orchestra, a children’s choir, and glittery solo instruments ranging from glass harmonicas and waterphones to African and toy percussion. It’s how Coulais uses these elements which makes Coraline so unusual.

The album actually begins with the “End Titles”, a dizzying amalgam of scampering strings, undulating harp waves, and Children’s Choir of Nice singing breathy, ghostly nonsense lyrics in what sounds like a combination of faux-French and mindless baby babble. It’s a beguiling, utterly fascinating opening, which sets the tone for the rest of the album; that of a skewed, tormented fairytale turned on its head.

Throughout the score the orchestra has a light, elusive quality, often played at each instrument’s highest register, and which is regularly infused with twinkly, scurrying plucked instrumental performances: harps, glockenspiels, chimes and bells, marimbas, and the omnipresent glass harmonica, giving the score an overarching sense of gloomy beauty, fragile delicacy, and innate peculiarity. There are moments of genuine tonal charm: parts of “Wybie”, “In the Bed” and “It Was Fantastic”, for example, are quite lovely, while “Let’s Go”, “Playing Piano” and “Dangerous” provide a few brief moments of drama and power through more strident orchestral performances. For the most part, though, Coulais seems to be at pains to keep his audience intentionally off-balance, using instruments in odd or unexpected ways or in surprising combinations, as if alluding to the fact that Coraline’s ventures into this new, fantastical world are not quite what they seem.

Other cues of note include “Bobinsky”, a quirky march with prominent wet brasses; “Fantastic Garden”, an unexpected – but appropriately skewed – jazz piece with a stand up bass, hooting saxophones, and even a sitar; “Mice Circus”, which features deconstructed big top music which has to be heard to be believed; and “Spink and Forcible”, which for reasons yet to be revealed breaks out into a distorted Latin rhythm. The twangy, boingy percussion in “Wybie That Talks” makes it possibly the most bizarre cue on the album.

The choir features prominently throughout the entire score, further enhancing the magical, fairytale feeling; cues such as “Installation”, “Exploration”, “The Supper” and “Alone” feature some lovely vocal performances, tweedle-deeing and lah-de-dahing with eerie, inquisitive whimsy. Conversely, “Ghost Children”, “Coraline Dispair”, and the creepily beautiful “You Know I Love You” use the voices to slightly more sinister effect, reminding listeners that, underneath it all, Coraline is still a horror story about shady characters doing evil things to the unwary. A number of cues actually feature brief, sung vocal performances with proper lyrics – “Dreaming” and “Sirens of the Sea” for example – although the new song from alternative rockers They Might Be Giants, “Other Father Song”, which is heavily advertised in the soundtrack’s promotional material, is nothing more than a curious 28-second diversion.

As I was writing this review I was trying to think of scores which sound similar to this one, to give readers some basis for comparison, and I have to admit I’m struggling to think of anything. Parts of it have a Nightmare Before Christmas vibe, while others have the same spiky quality of Thomas Newman’s children’s scores like Lemony Snicket. Elsewhere, it even reminded me of some of the more psychedelic music The Beatles wrote during their “experimentation” days. Yes, I did say The Beatles. For the most part, though, Coraline sounds completely unique, unlike anything I’ve heard before, and that in itself is a rare and encouraging thing.

Having said all that, it’s still very hard to get away from the fact that Coraline remains a very, very unusual score. Roger Ebert, in his review of the film, says “The ideal audience for this film would be admirers of film art itself, assuming such people exist. Selick creates an entirely original look and feel, uses the freedom of animation to elongate his characters into skeletal spectres looming over poor Coraline”. The same can be said of Coulais’ score, which may appeal more to admirers of the art of film music itself, who can appreciate the detail of unusual orchestration or intricate compositional techniques, and less to those who simply want to listen to something nice; as such, the score’s high ranking comes from the fact that I fall into the former camp.

Rating: ****

Buy the Coraline soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • End Credits (1:54)
  • Dreaming (2:20)
  • Installation (2:28)
  • Wybie (2:07)
  • Exploration (2:01)
  • Other Father Song (written by John Flansburgh and John Linnell, performed by They Might Be Giants) (0:28)
  • The Supper (1:31)
  • Bobinsky (2:23)
  • Fantastic Garden (1:34)
  • Coraline Fly (0:24)
  • Trap for the Mices (1:34)
  • Mice Circus (1:27)
  • Dreams Are Dangerous (1:27)
  • Sirens of the Sea (1:38)
  • In the Bed (1:54)
  • Spink and Forcible (0:33)
  • It Was Fantastic (2:10)
  • Ghost Children (1:28)
  • Let’s Go (1:09)
  • Playing Piano (2:48)
  • Wybie That Talks (2:09)
  • Cocobeetles (1:39)
  • Alone (0:52)
  • Dangerous (2:23)
  • Reunion (1:10)
  • Coraline Dispair (1:27)
  • The Theater (1:33)
  • The Famous Mister B (2:33)
  • You Know I Love You (4:27)
  • Mechanical Lulluby (2:24)
  • The Hand (3:14)
  • The Party (2:32)

Running Time: 59 minutes 41 seconds

Koch Records KOC-CD-4741 (2009)

Music composed by Bruno Coulais. Conducted by Laurent Petitgirard. Performed by The Budapest Symphony Orchestra and The Children’s Choir of Nice. Orchestrations by Bruno Coulais. Featured musical soloists Bruno Coulais, Christophe Grindel, Helene Breschand and Bertrand Paganotti. Special vocal performances by Mathilde Pellegrini. Recorded and mixed by Didier Lize. Album produced by Bruno Coulais.

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