CD Review: Coraline

By • March 2, 2009

Composer: Bruno Coulais
Label: Koch Records
Suggested Retail Price: $13.49
Grade: A

Even before Coraline Jones found a weirdly enchanted world on the other side of her wall, Bruno Coulais had staked his claim to a musical realm where any melody and orchestration was possible. Yet along with a whole bunch of similarly talented European composers, Coulais has waited for a gateway to be opened to the Hollywood side. For aside from the likes of Alexandre Desplat, Nino Rota and Maurice Jarre, few of these uniquely melodic people have been able to cross over to our more commercial musical land. But try as they might with their talent, it’s hard to impress our company town with the possibilities that come from a distinctly European approach, one whose gossamer sound has been informed by such classical predecessors as Clement Delibes, Carl Orff and Erik Satie.

Thankfully, another wall has come down for one of that continent’s most talented composers, as CORALINE’s stop-motion adventures have at last let Bruno Coulais’ Euro-centric talents go Hollywood in a big, magical way. Having composed scores in France since 1978, Coulais’ work has ranged from the bad seed percussion of SON OF THE SHARK to the sorcerous wonder of BELPHEGOR and VIDOCQ, as well as the suspense of CRIMSON RIVERS. Even if you aren’t a connoisseur of European cinema, you may have heard Coulais’ ability with wondrously strange orchestrations in his scores for the documentaries MICROCOSMOS and WINGED MIGRATION. And though CORALINE’s spider-witches and possessed terriers might be a bit more fanciful than insects and birds, the beautifully bizarre musical sentiment is more than here.

With the dark, tinkertoy sound that informs CORALINE’s score, the knee-jerk reaction might be to call Coulais’ work Danny Elfman-lite, especially given director Henry Selick’s previous success with THE NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS. But if anything, CORALINE is far weirder score and film than that dark fairy tale, especially given author Neil Gaiman’s penchant for showing the evil payoff of kids’ wish fulfillment. Those voices suitably start off the album with “End Credits,” with The Children’s Choir of Nice flitting over The Hungarian Symphony Orchestra. Their whimsical lyrics (which seem to be either in French, or some make-believe language to my untrained ears) have a cute, devilish sense of fun as they singing a sweet come-on to Coraline, promising her the deceptively nice prizes in the land beyond beyond. Coulais also joins the impish energy by providing the vocals for his catchy theme song “Dreaming.”

Though the orchestra provides a lush backing for CORALINE, the score benefits from a raw, unplugged sound. All sorts of metallic percussion fills the soundtrack with a detuned funkiness, as if wind was whistling through a bunch of spilled children’s toys. It’s a beautifully, eccentrically eerie sound, a “metal” score that’s the niftiest of its type since Nathan Johnson’s soundtrack for BRICK- or Jack Nietzsche’s ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO’S NEST for that matter, with Coulais’ similar use of rubbed glass in “The Supper.” Elsewhere, the Children’s choir becomes the moaning of ghosts, while “Bobinksy” plays an ultra-stretched trapeze artist with the farting brass notes. In “Playing Piano” and “Fantastic Garden,” Coulais employs wondrous free-form jazz, conjuring a sense of hip wonder that’s so completely different from American kid cartoon scoring that the music could just as well come from another planet, let alone a composer from France.

CORALINE is full of such God-knows-what instrumental moments in its funhouse score, a place where anything seems possible, from the tango of “Spink and Forcible” to the lushly delicate “It Was Fantastic.” Often, the highly melodic cues breaking down into something eerier, and vice-versa for the ones with crazier starts. But while Coulais’ approach might seem to be a poetic acid trip, it all goes down to playing the psyche of adolescence, an already-confused state that at once wants to smash childhood things while still trying to hang onto them. Add that idea to songs by the already cute alt. band They Might Be Giants, and you’ve got both a film and score that take the idea of precious precociousness to a decidedly bizarre, yet beautifully inviting realm.

The sheer, near-crude craziness that CORALINE jumps in and out if is terrifically suited for a technique like stop-motion animation, one of the first hand-made art forms that everyone has seemingly left in the CGI dust. Coulais is the musical equivalent of an animator who painstakingly moves his Coraline puppet inch-by-inch. Except in his case, Coulais is rummaging about his percussion workshop, winding one instrument or that for a few seconds before going onto the next idea. Yet he never loses the flowing motion, or shape of his score.

Once Coraline becomes trapped by her “other” mother-from-hell, Coulais strips down those instruments, making the album perhaps slightly less interesting in its subtler second half. But then, what better way of showing how fun is always destined to become a nightmare? While Coulais’ increasingly surreal music gets across Coraline’s moral come-uppance, he also sympathetically plays to her vulnerability, as the innocent, bell-like percussion of “Reunion” and “Coralin Dispair” is contrasted against the hollow, out-of-control organ playing of “The Famous Mister B” – a cue that’s easily some of the creepiest circus music to grace a film score since Gene Moore’s CARNIVAL OF SOULS.

Whether Bruno Coulais is blasting off like a madcap circus or sounding like the falling petals of a dying, fragile flower, CORALINE comes off as one of the few scores that doesn’t remind you of the ten kid’s cartoon soundtracks before it. He’s found a place that’s pulling its inspiration from the kind of impressionism that signaled the passing of classical melody into a far more impressionistic place. In Europe, this is exactly the kind of stuff that passes for film music. In Hollywood, it’s something of a revelation. One can only hope the artistic, and financial success of CORALINE will open the floodgates to the imagination of composers of Coulais’ ilk, and a land where the lyrical wonder never ceases.

Wish for CORALINE’s music here

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