Coraline (Laika Entertainment, 2009)

 

The better part of a decade ago now, Neil Gaiman wrote a fantastically disturbing novel called Coraline. The titular heroine is a young girl, a smart and clever explorer languishing from the unfortunate condition of boredom. Luckily, this is a condition not fated to last, for her neighbors are oddballs and there's a creepy inverted world on the other side of a mysterious door. There are primordial rats who sing a terrifying song (we were here before you fell / you will be here when we rise) and an Other Mother with shiny black buttons for eyes. There are Lovecraftian horrors lurking in dark spaces between realities, and there are eerily evocative Dave McKean drawings. There's even a talking cat who chooses to use his powers for good.

How exciting it was, with such a novel, to discover that Henry Selick of The Nightmare Before Christmas fame would be doing a Coraline film adaptation! With Gaiman's wicked perfect tale and Selick's imaginative palette, how could anyone possibly be disappointed?

The answer is that we pretty much couldn't be. Coraline, the film, is truly wonderful: the opening scene is one of the most fantastically creepy scenes I've seen in a film in quite some time. The opulent settings are absorbing, engaging, and delightful. The story is well-paced and the disturbing atmosphere of the novel saturates the film (sans Lovecraftian horrors, though, sadly). The cat? Perfect, sassy and watchful. The film is edgy and lush and eerie. It's perfect for kids and adults, straightforward and spectacular enough to keep kids engaged while also being layered and subtle enough that adults find psychological depths to probe.

My only complaints are pretty mild: Coraline's parents seem less sympathetic at the beginning of the film than they do in the novel, but perhaps this was to establish more firmly why Coraline would be so attracted to another world. Some of the more sophisticated subtlety of the novel is made blunt in the film -- Gaiman manages to depict the entire inverted world as an elaborate web, while the film eschews that for a literal one. Then, of course, there is the addition of "Wybie," whose unfortunate moniker is a diminutive of "Whyborn."

Wybie is the annoying boy next door and his purpose seems to be making Coraline more connected to her world. He also provides a method by which the story can be moved forward: it is Wybie, after all, who knows some creepy stories about the house, who brings Coraline the doll that looks just like her, who introduces her to the cat. Much of the novel was about Coraline's interior, and Wybie gives the film a way to turn those story elements into the exterior. All that said, I'm still lukewarm on the addition of this young man and remain irritated over his role in the final act of the film, when it's not wholly Coraline's cleverness that saves the day but rather Wybie's intervention.

Both the soundtrack and the voice work for Coraline were top notch. The soundtrack is by turns eerie and fabulous, evoking Coraline's isolation and the other world's amazing wonders and the Other Mother's rage. The inclusion of a short song by They Might Be Giants is a real treat, if too quickly over! Dakota Fanning and Teri Hatcher do a remarkable job bringing Coraline and both Mothers to life, while Jennifer Saunders and Dawn French are a pleasure as always, portraying the aged and saucy retired actresses who live downstairs. Keith David's voice for the cat was an inspired choice, and Ian McShane as the mouse circus maestro Mr. Bobinsky enchants (or terrifies, when he takes on the voices of the rats).

One of the more amazing aspects of the film is that everything is hand-made: every tiny sweater, every minuscule cherry blossom, every itty-bitty toy. It's quite an accomplishment and anyone following the development of the film and the promotional campaign online was able to inspect and learn more about the creators and creation of these countless pieces of Coraline's world. The film's Web site features a number of making-of videos, while the mysterious box promotional campaign brought an interactive element to learning about the production of Coraline.

In the months before the film's release, Laika created fifty unique hand-made boxes that stored props from the film (as well as prints of those items in use, letters, patterns, and other goodies). They then sent these boxes to their favorite bloggers, who ranged from fashion bloggers to knitting bloggers to toy enthusiasts to writers like Cory Doctorow. You can see the boxes that have been discovered so far at the ASIFA-Hollywood Animation Archive.

In addition, Laika released hundreds of button-keys into the wilds of urban centers such as New York City and Boston, for lucky pedestrians to find and carry off with them. Along with a fully-developed Web site sporting scavenger hunts and the aforementioned making-of videos, Coraline touted one of the best ad campaigns I've seen for a film in quite a while. Hats off to Laika and their team! In short, Coraline inundates you with eeriness, treats you to a brilliant mouse circus, throws you into a very spooky ghost scene, confronts you with the terror of the Other Mother but doesn't ever let you despair, and has the best Other Mother's right hand that I could ever have hoped for. It does all of this and so much more in less than two hours, and is such a fantastic adventure that you'll want to revisit it again and again. I know I do.

[Deborah J. Brannon]

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