By Willie Krischke – March 27, 2009
A child, bored in her new, expansive, and incredibly old house, discovers, in a spare room, a hidden passageway to a different world – one brighter, more adventurous, and, she discovers, much more fraught with peril than her own.
Sound familiar? It’s true, the premise of “Coraline” is very similar to the premise of “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe–” but the parallels end as soon as exploration of the “other world” begins. Where Peter, Susan, Lucy and Edmund discovered a land of dwarves and giants, knights and witches, Coraline (voiced by Dakota Fanning) finds one that is very similar to her own… except that everything’s better. Her parents are attentive, and interesting. Fun, even. The creepy neighbors turn out to be fascinating entertainers. And even the cat can talk (and the boy next door can’t.) What 12 year old girl hasn’t dreamed of that?
Oh, and if only Henry Selick had gotten hold of the Narnia series first. Then we’d be expecting seven visually fascinating, absolutely absorbing movies out of that franchise rather than the pretty flat adaptations we’ve been getting, and will probably continue to get. “Coraline” is so fun to watch I don’t think it would matter much if the plot made sense, or the characters were interesting, or if anything happened at all. He animates acrobatic mice and glow in the dark gardens and floppy old ladies with such energy and imagination that you don’t really need to know what you’re seeing to know that you’re seeing something special.
The icing on the cake, though, is that Selick has a great story to work with, written by one of the greatest storytellers of our time. Neil Gaiman’s novella has been translated into a number of languages and connects with childrens’ fears (and hopes) in countries around the world. The main character is a bit hard to love — she’s a snippy, cantankerous know-it-all, hard to please and even harder to keep busy. In her defense, she’s just been moved away from all her friends and familiarity and plopped down in a rundown boarding house in rainy, slug-ridden Oregon, where her parents spend most of their time ignoring her.
Her parents (voiced by Teri Hatcher and John Hodgman) are no picnic. They appear to be co-authoring a garden catalog, but have a serious aversion to dirt, mud, or anything else generally associated with gardens. They continually accuse Coraline of pestering them. Mom clearly has a hard time showing affection – watch how she slips the gift to her daughter at the end – and Dad seems hardly there at all.
So she does her best to explore this strange place where she’s been placed. There is a boy with a weird mask (Robert Bailey Jr.) and an honest-to-goodness Cheshire cat (Keith David) – a bit starved perhaps – and then there are the neighbors. Upstairs lives a retired Russian acrobat(Ian McShane) training mice to do his tricks for him, and downstairs, two former bathing beauties (Jennifer Saunders and Dawn French, of “AbFab” fame,) still competing to see who can show the most flesh. And when she finds the passageway to the other world, all of these things are transformed — but who is doing the transforming? And for what reason?
The answer will give you the heebie-jeebies, and takes “Coraline” to that level of Jungian dream/fairy tale interpretation that really separates the stories we remember from the ones we let slip away. Gaiman has captured perfectly that, when you’re 12 years old, your parents are suddenly both fascinating and horrifying, because that’s when you realize that they’re actual people, and people separate from you. You begin to ask, at least subconsciously, not only “What do they have to offer me?” but also “What do they want from me?”
If you’re a parent, I don’t envy the decisions you must make regarding this movie. Your nine year old, who is just discovering that fear can be fun (and now wants to go to the amusement park instead of Chuck E. Cheese for his birthday) will be delighted with it. Your five year old will be terrified, and will wake you up for weeks because there are kangaroo rats in his closet. Have fun.
- if you are a fan of Neil Gaiman, naturally.
- if you like imaginative, visually inventive, somewhat dark children’s stories.
- if you’re bored with Standard Disney Fare and think your kids can handle something a little more spooky and a lot more interesting.
- if you think “kid’s movie” and you think “Cinderella,” and you like it that way.
- if your kids are prone to nightmares and monsters under the bed.
- if you think creepy things are…well, creepy, and not your cup of tea.