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 favorite of this blogger, at least since my buying the very first issue of The Sandman new off the rack in 1989. 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.
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, 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.
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!
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.
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, let alone since the 1950s. But as animated movies such as The Incredibles and WALL-E 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.