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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The Dark Crystal

The Dark Crystal movie poster


Oops. I should have let The Dark Crys­tal live on in my child­hood mem­o­ries as a Good Movie. See­ing the bril­liant Mir­ror­mask reminded me how much this movie affected my child­hood, but see­ing it again as an adult I find it has not aged well. The spe­cial effects of course can­not rival con­tem­po­rary dig­i­tal epics, but I was sur­prised to find the sto­ry­telling stilted and overly dumbed-down. Recent kids’ movies are pitched at a more sophis­ti­cated level, not feel­ing the need to start with a lonnnnng open­ing expos­i­tory nar­ra­tive and pause every 15 min­utes or so to do a plot recap.

Still, you have to admire Jim Henson’s sheer blood­y­mind­ed­ness at spend­ing five years pulling off this difficult-to-make film. And it scores points for just being so weird.

And a quick word about the dvd: cheap menus and a hor­ren­dous print. What’s up with that?