Movie critics (and this includes me) are too easily tempted into being snarky, sarcastic, and arrogant. We rush to be the first to call things “the best” this, and “the most” that, and the ___________ of the year, and the __________ to beat in 2009, and a _____________ like no other.

I’m wearying more and more of critics who merely shout about what they don’t like, or who pretend the authority to make claims about a film’s place in history before it has even opened in theaters, even as I catch myself making such claims.

I’m most fond of those critics who focus on substance instead of superlatives, thoughtfulness instead of soundbites.

And I’m most fond of reviews by Steven D. Greydanus. He seems to approach each review as a challenge to write creatively and thoughtfully. He offers sufficient information, sufficient historical perspective, and just enough plot synopsis. But going above and beyond the call of duty, he gives you a sense of himself, his heart, and his passion. And he interprets films with a razor-sharp intellect and a keen sense of insight.

Today’s review of Coraline is a prime example. Here is how it starts:

Here is what I sometimes tell my younger children when they occasionally wake up in the middle of the night terrified after a nightmare — especially if they wonder why God, or their guardian angel, allowed it to happen to them.

I know it seems like bad dreams are something bad that just happens to you. But I think most dreams, good or bad, are like stories that we tell ourselves — stories that a part of your brain tells to another part of your brain. Sometimes good stories, sometimes scary stories… but stories we make up ourselves, with a different part of our brain. And I think that part of us usually knows what it’s doing — and God knows that. Maybe being scared in a dream helps you to be braver and less scared in the real world. But now that the dream is over, you don’t have to worry about having it again. You won’t, I promise. You’ll see in the morning.

Somehow this feels like the right place to begin with Coraline, a dark fantasy with surreal elements that feel like a story that a little girl tells herself, initially for comfort and amusement, until the disquieting elements take over and the dream becomes a nightmare. Even then, though, there are subtle signs that the little girl is still ultimately in control, still telling the story herself.

Fantasy writer Neil Gaiman says his 2002 novella Coraline was in fact built around themes from stories that his daughter Holly improvised when she was four or five years old — stories about a girl named Holly whose mother gets kidnapped by a witch that resembles the mother. Why would a little girl invent such a theme? Where does that come from? A part of the brain that knows what it’s doing, I suspect.

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