The Only Child: Neil Gaiman’s Coraline

Coraline movie poster


I saw Hen­ry Selick and Neil Gaiman’s Cora­line on its open­ing day in my favorite movie the­ater, the best pos­si­ble venue to see any remote­ly visu­al­ly ambi­tious movie: the Clearview Ziegfeld in New York City. Fit­ting­ly, my tick­ets were mis­print­ed “Car­o­line,” a mis­nomer that is a recur­ring plot point.

Cora­line was writ­ten and direct­ed by stop-motion ani­ma­tion genius Hen­ry Selick, whose patient and pre­cise hands also cre­at­ed the utter­ly mad plea­sure The Night­mare Before Christ­mas (often erro­neous­ly cred­it­ed to Tim Bur­ton, who pro­duced). As if Cora­line need­ed any fin­er pedi­gree, it was based on the fine novel­la by Neil Gaiman. Gaiman is a long­time Dork Report favorite, at least since my buy­ing the very first issue of The Sand­man new off the rack in 1989 (read my account of hav­ing books signed by Gaiman and Ray Brad­bury). Cora­line and his lat­er The Grave­yard Book are both osten­si­bly aimed at “young adults,” which I guess means whomev­er is old enough to under­stand most of the words. Such a cat­e­go­riza­tion is more about mar­ket­ing and the con­ve­nience of know­ing where to shelve titles in book­stores and libraries, any­way. As is also the case with his children’s books The Day I Swapped My Dad for Two Gold­fish and The Wolves in the Walls (both illus­trat­ed by fre­quent col­lab­o­ra­tor Dave McK­ean), they’re all basi­cal­ly for any­one that likes to read.

Dakota Fanning in CoralineCora­line tra­vers­es the por­tal into John Malkovich’s brain

Gaiman, once famous for pos­si­bly hav­ing the record for most unpro­duced projects in Hol­ly­wood, has been tear­ing up the movie biz of late. Just to name a few high­lights, he wrote the script for McKean’s sump­tu­ous film Mir­ror­mask (read The Dork Report review), had his fan­ta­sy nov­el Star­dust (orig­i­nal­ly illus­trat­ed by Charles Vess) adapt­ed into a film by Matthew Vaughn, and co-wrote the bril­liant script for Robert Zemekis’ Beowulf with Roger Avery. As is his cus­tom now for all his pend­ing projects, Gaiman has been blog­ging and Tweet­ing about the Cora­line adap­ta­tion all along, a process rude­ly inter­rupt­ed by his win­ning the New­bury Medal for The Grave­yard Book. His man­tle is now offi­cial­ly groan­ing under the weight of all his tro­phies, medals, Very Impor­tant Prizes, and such­like.

Gaiman was not direct­ly involved with the mak­ing of Cora­line (beyond being on good terms with the film­mak­ers and mak­ing the occa­sion­al con­sul­ta­tion), but was pleased the fin­ished prod­uct and espe­cial­ly with how well it was mar­ket­ed by Weiden+Kennedy. Fre­quent read­ers of his blog will be famil­iar with how he blames Stardust’s rel­a­tive­ly dis­ap­point­ing box office (in the US, any­way) with a mar­ket­ing cam­paign that mis­rep­re­sent­ed what the film was actu­al­ly like (the pre­cise anal­o­gy he used went some­thing like “more Princess Bride, less Ella Enchant­ed”). But I feel that this kind of height­ened lev­el of com­mu­ni­ca­tion between artist and audi­ence made pos­si­ble by the inter­net might some­times be too much infor­ma­tion. Close to the release of Star­dust, I recall Gaiman urg­ing read­ers to see the film on open­ing week­end or even open­ing day if at all pos­si­ble, the nar­row win­dow that in today’s movie indus­try deter­mines the per­cep­tion of suc­cess or fail­ure. This time around, he made a point of men­tion­ing that Coraline’s pro­duc­tion com­pa­ny Lai­ka had basi­cal­ly bet the entire farm on the film. I have been work­ing for movie com­pa­nies for years and am famil­iar with per­pet­u­al job inse­cu­ri­ty. I was hap­py to go see the film right away any­way, but I would have rather not wor­ried about whether or not I was pro­tect­ing someone’s job. Thank­ful­ly, Cora­line appears to have per­formed above expec­ta­tions on its open­ing week­end, and all is well.

John Hodgman in CoralineThe Oth­er Father gives us our 3D money’s worth

Apolo­gies for the ram­bling pre­am­ble. On to the movie: Cora­line (voiced by Dako­ta Fan­ning) and her fam­i­ly move into the ground-floor apart­ment of a crum­bling rur­al house. Her par­ents are busy gar­den­ing writ­ers with­out the time to actu­al­ly gar­den, let alone to pay much atten­tion to their only child. Coraline’s biggest prob­lem is that she’s unhap­py at being so often left alone. I sus­pect that most over­pro­tect­ed kids whose par­ents take them to see this movie will have trou­ble iden­ti­fy­ing with a kid who has too much free­dom.

The res­i­dents of the neigh­bor­ing apart­ments are at least as eccen­tric as those of The Sandman’s The Doll’s House. Russ­ian acro­bat Mr. Bobin­sky (Ian McShane), may or may not be train­ing roden­tia to take part in a Mouse Cir­cus. Cora­line gets off on the wrong foot with unloved odd­ball Wybie (Robert Bai­ly, Jr.), who takes his name from “Why be born.” British com­e­dy duo Dawn French and Jen­nifer Saun­ders appear as Miss­es Spink & Forcible (two Gaiman-esque names if there ever were any), a pair of well-aged actress­es liv­ing in the base­ment.

Cora­line dis­cov­ers a long-for­got­ten door­way hid­den behind fur­ni­ture and lay­ers of wall­pa­per. Not unlike the very sim­i­lar­ly diminu­tive door in Being John Malkovich, it is a gate­way to anoth­er world. Where­as the por­tal to Malkovich’s brain resem­bled the gross inside of a diges­tive tract, this one is part cob­web­by cave and part glow­ing fun­house tun­nel. On the oth­er end of the door is anoth­er, bet­ter ver­sion of Coraline’s milieu. In the real world, no one gets Coraline’s name right, but in the Oth­er World, every­one knows her. She is well fed, the gar­den is a lux­u­ri­ous Eden sculpt­ed in her image, her bed is made, and her toys are new. But alas, her Oth­er Moth­er (Teri Hatch­er) has con­struct­ed this entic­ing sim­u­lacrum just to ensnare her. Cora­line is about to aban­don the real world for this cod­dled exis­tence, when she is giv­en the price: she must sew but­tons over her eyes. This is point in the film when adults squirm and kids squeal with delight. Creepy, creepy, creepy!

Teri Hatcher and Dakota Fanning in CoralineThe Oth­er Moth­er serves Oth­er Omelettes for break­fast

Rough­ly the first three-quar­ters of the film is genius-lev­el set­ting of tone, char­ac­ter, and atmos­phere. It fal­ters only when a rigid plot struc­ture appears out of nowhere and forces the nar­ra­tive onto fixed rails. Cat (Kei­th David), the only oth­er crea­ture that can trav­el between worlds, tells Cora­line that the Oth­er Moth­er likes games. This key char­ac­ter­is­tic would have been bet­ter shown than told, for Cora­line is able to turn the tables by sim­ply chal­leng­ing her to a game. The Oth­er Moth­er imme­di­ate­ly acqui­esces, and is appar­ent­ly unable to resist a game in the same way that the mytho­log­i­cal Sphinx can’t resist a rid­dle (a plot point that also fig­ures in Mir­ror­mask). Coraline’s chal­lenge is equal parts game and bet: if she can find the five souls The Oth­er Moth­er has trapped before her (her par­ents and three oth­er chil­dren), she must release them all. Find­ing three hid­den objects hid­den in dif­fer­ent vir­tu­al worlds is a clas­sic video game sce­nario. Cora­line has no short­age of oth­er MacGuffins to lose and recov­er, includ­ing a key and an Eye Stone (a mag­i­cal jew­el for­tu­itous­ly pro­vid­ed by the actress­es). Indeed, a tie-in videogame exists, which no doubt doesn’t have to stretch the sto­ry to struc­ture its own nar­ra­tive.

Also dis­ap­point­ing are the three chil­dren the Oth­er Moth­er has already cap­tured. Their trio of cutesy voic­es that com­pli­ment and encour­age Cora­line are the most con­ven­tion­al aspect of the film, not in keep­ing with the rest of the film’s enjoy­ably macabre tone. But actu­al­ly, maybe this all makes sense… the kids are def­i­nite­ly not as bright and spunky as her, for she alone has the brains to escape and defeat the crea­ture.

Dawn French and Jennifer Saunders in CoralineThe com­e­dy stylings (and alarm­ing­ly large bosoms) of French & Saun­ders

Stop-motion ani­ma­tion is one of the old­est film­mak­ing tech­niques, but Lai­ka (based in Port­land, Ore­gon) and Aard­man Ani­ma­tion (mak­ers of Wallce & Gromit and Chick­en Run) are still mak­ing films more daz­zling than the most advanced CGI. The rea­son is quite sim­ple: you’re look­ing at mov­ing pho­tographs of phys­i­cal objects craft­ed by human hands. Like Beowulf, Cora­line is being shown in many the­aters in 3D. If pos­si­ble, the tech­nol­o­gy seems to have improved even since U23D (read The Dork Report review), let alone since the 1950s. But as ani­mat­ed movies such as The Incred­i­bles (read The Dork Report review) and WALL-E (read The Dork Report review) have proved, all the tech­nol­o­gy in the world must play sec­ond fid­dle to a good sto­ry.

Gaiman has been say­ing in inter­views late­ly that his books for kids are creepi­er than his nov­els for adults (includ­ing Amer­i­can Gods and Anan­si Boys). In keep­ing, Cora­line the film is won­der­ful­ly deranged, weird, and twist­ed. By far the eeri­est sequence is the open­ing cred­its, fea­tur­ing the hands of a crea­ture we lat­er learn is the Oth­er Moth­er, rit­u­al­ly dis­em­bow­el­ing a pup­pet and recon­fig­ur­ing into a sim­u­lacra of Cora­line. Watch­dog site Kids-In-Mind near­ly goes into melt­down count­ing the dis­crete instances of vio­lence and dis­turb­ing imagery, and expect to read a great many reviews cau­tion­ing par­ents to keep sen­si­tive kids away. But I sus­pect most kids will love this film, and will prob­a­bly be bet­ter off for hav­ing their imag­i­na­tions poked and prod­ded in ways that safer pap wouldn’t. One of the rea­sons I love movies is to expe­ri­ence the mad visu­al imag­i­na­tions of direc­tors like Selick (and Bur­ton, McK­ean, Ter­ry Gilliam, Michel Gondry, Tarsem, etc.), and it’s a good thing “kids’” movies like Cora­line are here to warp young­sters minds ear­ly.

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One thought on “The Only Child: Neil Gaiman’s Coraline”

  1. Thanks for expe­dit­ing! I feel much bet­ter now!

    I LOVED the movie, and even enjoyed the 3D, although in the­o­ry I’m phys­i­cal­ly inca­pable of see­ing 3D. My one stick­ing point was the ghosts as well — they were def­i­nite­ly not creepy enough. Yes, they’re dense, but dense does not have to equal squeaky and cute. In fact, it was their den­si­ty that I found so dis­turb­ing in the book.

    The weird­ly placid pace, espe­cial­ly of the first two thirds, and the music were both pitched won­der­ful­ly, and that may be what impressed me most. I hat­ed Star­dust, and, of course, the TV minis­eries ver­sion of Nev­er­where (pos­si­bly my favorite NG nov­el) sucked don­key balls, so it was nice to final­ly get an adap­ta­tion of Neil that I could hang my hat on.

    James was ter­ri­fied out of his skull. He was so psy­ched to go, and it was adorable to see him in these ridicu­lous­ly over­sized 80s style glass­es watch­ing with blank-faced rap­ture… until the Oth­er Moth­er start­ed to show hints of her true form and demeanor. Then the glass­es came off, the child turned a full 180 in his seat, and my enjoy­ment of the last 30 min­utes was some­what hin­dered by repeat­ed and inten­si­fy­ing hissed demands that we GO HOME RIGHT NOW! He sur­vived and has even gone to the web­site to put but­tons on his eyes, but it was a near thing.

    Sor­ry to write my own review in your com­ments but, ahem, you did ask what I thought.

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