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8 February 2009

Mommie Dreariest:
A Review of Coraline

by Gary Westfahl

Directed by Henry Selick

Written by Henry Selick, based on the novel by Neil Gaiman

Starring the voices of Dakota Fanning, Teri Hatcher, Jennifer Saunders, Dawn French, Keith David, John Hodgman, Robert Bailey, Jr., and Ian McShane

For lovers of Neil Gaiman's novel Coraline (2002), writer/director Henry Selick's stop-motion animated film is about as good an adaptation as they could have realistically hoped for: he is generally faithful to the book's storyline — a young girl named Coraline Jones (Dakota Fanning), neglected by her busy parents, enters an alternate world with a doting "other mother" (Teri Hatcher) who turns out to be a predatory monster — and he also endeavors to emulate its special tone. If he doesn't quite succeed in doing so, that is because Gaiman's work is very much a gentle, charming fantasy, and whenever Hollywood applies its formulas for sure-fire box-office success, it rarely does "gentle" or "charming" very well. As a whole, then, the film struck me as a bit too blunt, too crass, too bombastic for my taste. (I mean, a topless Miss Forcible [Dawn French] wearing pasties?) It shouts while Gaiman whispers, dazzles while Gaiman tickles.

Consider the obvious messages conveyed by the film, amplified from subtle suggestions in Gaiman's novel and hammered home with a stentorian force alien to that beloved writer. Structurally, this film is closely modeled upon Mary Poppins (1964): children (or in this case, a single child), horribly ignored by distracted parents, are lured away by a magical substitute mother who takes them to delightful alternate worlds; eventually, the parents repent and resolve to again function as true parents, pushing their replacement and her attractive fantasies out of the picture. Thus, Mary Poppins concludes with the parents flying a kite with their children; this film similarly concludes with Coraline's parents, horticultural experts, planting a garden with their child. The key difference, of course, is that Mary Poppins is a kindly, benign figure who gracefully withdraws from the scene when the parents are ready to resume their proper role, whereas this film's other mother is an evil witch who must be forced away by trickery and violence. But the lesson for parents in both films is precisely the same: take good care of your children, or they may go away with mysterious strangers into unknown realms. (It is good advice, I suppose, but given the economic realities that force so many parents today to both work full-time jobs, I wonder how practical it is; and in the case of this film, all of the hard work done by Coraline's parents is more than justified when the gardening catalog they are preparing turns out to be a financial success.)

A wrinkle in the argument is that both parents are not equally to blame for Coraline's plight; rather, since she is the dominant figure in the family, it is mostly the mother's fault. Thus, in Coraline's real world, her father (John Hodgman) casually refers to his wife (also Hatcher) as "the boss," and as another sign of her power, she gets to do her writing on a modern laptop while the father is relegated to what looks like a computer from the early 1990s. The power structure is even more pronounced in the other world, where the other father (also Hodgman) turns out to be only a manipulated lackey of the sinister other mother, who grows in size as the film progresses to emphasize her authority over the other world. To further condemn motherhood, Selick falls back upon a commonplace analogy between black widow spiders and domineering women — found nowhere in the book — making the other mother increasingly resemble a spider and even at one point having her try to trap Coraline within a gigantic spider web.

Despite its criticisms of Coraline's mothers, feminists should be more upset by how this film handles its protagonist. Gaiman's Coraline seems much more mature, more worldly wise, than her cinematic counterpart; she is never entirely enthusiastic about her suspicious new parents, and her efforts to locate the souls of the ghost children and her missing parents require more intelligence and diligence than the film's Coraline seems capable of. (The book's Coraline finds everything without any clues; the film's Coraline demands some clues before she begins her quest.) Furthermore, one of the joys of the book is reading the narrator's reports of Coraline's discerning observations about life: "Coraline wondered why so few of the adults she had met made any sense," "Coraline could never work out why anyone would want to paint a bowl of fruit," and "Coraline knew that when grown-ups told you something wouldn't hurt it almost always did." Then there is her most important line of dialogue, which sums up why she is able to resist the other mother's invitation: "You really don't understand, do you? . I don't want whatever I want. Nobody does. Not really. What kind of fun would it be if I just got everything I ever wanted? Just like that, and it didn't mean anything. What then?" All of these lines are omitted or truncated in the film, probably because its Coraline doesn't seem smart enough to come up with them; she falls hook, line, and sinker for the other mother, and only the prospect of having buttons sewn over her eyes makes her realize that her other parents aren't as nice as they appear to be. (To locate in the film the theme that getting everything you want is not desirable, one must observe contrasting portraits: Coraline's real house has a painting of a boy vaguely recalling Thomas Gainsborough's The Blue Boy crying because the ice cream has fallen out of his cone, illustrating the true vicissitudes of life; the painting in the other mother's house has the same boy happily holding a cone filled with ice cream ready to eat, illustrating the superficial attractiveness of her alternate world.)

Yet the film's worst distortion of the book's Coraline involves its addition of a new and apparently superfluous character: Wybie Lovat (Robert Bailey, Jr.), the grandson of the Jones's landlady, who periodically visits Coraline and also has a mute counterpart in the other world. Yes, he does give Coraline somebody else to talk to; yes, he does function to convey some additional information about one of the ghost children, who was his grandmother's sister; yes, he does add some ethnic diversity to the film (although he is rather pale-skinned, his grandmother, observed in the film's final scene, is unambiguously African-American); and yes, his name — a shortened form of "Why be born?" — and the fact that he is living with his grandmother suggest that he, too, has a tale to tell about neglectful parents, although the film never develops that idea (except that one might wonder about the mental health of a boy who perpetually dresses up like a skeleton and rides on a bike that makes him resemble Ghost Rider). But the main role of this character for most of the film seems to be helping to pad out Gaiman's slender story to a robust 101 minutes of screen time — until Coraline fights her final battle with her other mother. (***SPOILER ALERT!***) In the book, Coraline is well aware that the other mother's hand is still lurking in her house, she carefully sets a trap for it, and she succeeds all by herself in sending the evil hand plummeting down a deep well. But in the film, this less-competent Coraline doesn't really understand what's going on, runs to the well in a state of panic without any real plan, is trapped by the hand and apparently doomed, but is miraculously rescued at the last minute by Wybie, who crushes the hand and helps her drop it down the well. In his essay "Why I Wrote Coraline," Gaiman says that he "wanted it to have a girl as a heroine," and he sums up her story by saying that "By the time I finished writing, Coraline had seen what lay behind mirrors, had a close call with a bad hand, and had come face-to-face with her other mother; she had rescued her parents from a fate worse than death and triumphed against overwhelming odds." It is sad indeed to note that the film instead tells the story of a girl who succeeds mostly through dumb luck and by being rescued by a male knight in shining armor.

Other changes in the film appear to neither harm, nor especially help, the story. Gaiman did not specify where Coraline's parents had previously lived or where they moved to; in the film, they came from Michigan — explaining why the father wears a Michigan State University sweatshirt and why the snow globe which traps the parents comes from the Detroit Zoo — and they move to Ashland, Oregon — an apparent nod to Phil Knight, head of Nike. Inc. and of Laika, the company that produced the film, and a lifelong resident of Oregon. (Thankfully, although the film's enigmatic concluding words — "For those in the know: Jerk Wad" — appear to be providing a password for a contest to win a special pair of Coraline-themed Nike shoes, the film itself devotes no special attention to Coraline's footware, demonstrating a restraint about product placement rarely observed in Hollywood today.) Oregon also provides the film with a locale where it rains a lot, adding to its creepy mood, and since Ashland is also home to a renowned Shakespeare festival, the scene when Coraline and her mother go downtown to purchase a school uniform can be enlivened by Shakespearian actors dashing around and shouting lines from plays like Richard III. Another reference to Shakespeare comes in the form of the titles, observed on posters, of the bawdy revues once performed by Coraline's neighbors, aging actresses Miss Spink (Jennifer Saunders) and Miss Forcible: Julius Sees-Her and King Leer. Indeed, come to think of it, the film among other things appears to be offering a criticism of show business: the dangerous house the Joneses move into is named the Pink Palace Apartments; the other mother and her minions are of course engaged in a form of play-acting to deceive Coraline; her actress neighbors are foolishly obsessed with their past glories in burlesque shows (their doormat reads "No Whistling in the House," as if they vainly imagine that they might still inspire wolf whistles); Coraline's other neighbor Mr. Bobinsky (Ian McShane) is insanely devoted to training mice to perform; and among the deceptive attractions of the other mother's world are colorful and elaborate performances by its equivalents of Spink, Forcible, and Bobinsky and his mice. The fact that the trio of neighbors joins the Jones family in its final gardening project suggests that they have fruitfully abandoned the allures of the stage to devote themselves instead to honest, productive work.

There are other details unique to the film worth noting. I was pleased to observe that the animators made Coraline left-handed, as a sign of her individuality. It is interesting that Coraline's real-life neighbors consistently call her "Caroline," while their otherworldly counterparts always get her name right, indicating that it is important to distinguish between trivial matters like getting your name right and the key issue here — that her real neighbors are kindly and their counterparts are puppets of a sinister force. It was rather daring for the filmmakers to have Coraline's real parents neglect to say a prayer before their meal, while her phony parents dutifully say grace before their eat dinner, which might be interpreted as a criticism of organized religion; yet the point may simply be that anyone can pretend to be pious, but you have to discern their true natures. It is cute that persons I would assume are the children of Selick and Hatcher (George Selick, Harry Selick, and Emerson Hatcher) were recruited for minor voice roles in the film, giving the film the aura of a family affair. And I see that I have somehow neglected to mention the film's helpful talking cat (Keith David), probably because that was one aspect of this adaptation that the filmmakers got exactly right.

Finally, if I have had nothing to say about the film's animation, that is because it does not call attention to itself: you accept the conventions of animation without thinking, you relate to the characters as you would to real-life actors, and you enjoy the moments of spectacle without distinguishing them from the computer-generated special effects now regularly observed in live-action films. Its use of 3D effects was generally subdued, and probably more appealing for that reason. (Does anyone really enjoy having objects hurled at one's face?) The only difference here is that, by continuing to employ stop-motion animation instead of the more common computer-generated imagery, Selick demonstrates that the older approach can be just as impressive as its cybernetic descendant. Moreover, noting that four of the five films previewed before its showing in Ontario, California, were also animated films inspires the theory that, perhaps, our era is coming to the realization that animation in fact represents the ideal form of filmmaking — since animation has matured to the point that it can do almost everything a live-action film can do, and can effortlessly do so much that live-action films cannot. In short, I cannot imagine that Coraline would have been any better if Selick had used real actors, which says a great deal about where films in general, and where fantasy and science fiction films in particular, may be heading in the future.

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