Written by: Rob Van Winkle, CC2K Staff Writer
Coraline opens with a wonderfully creepy sequence that, even after reading the script, raised my expectations; could it be that director Henry Selick had some idea of what he was doing? As it turns out, the answer is yes: Selick had some idea of what he was doing, just not enough.
As with many other nerds, I am perennially disappointed by film adaptations of novels and comics. While I understand and respect that an exact translation to another medium is usually impossible, it almost invariably seems as though the production team gets sloppy at some point in the process. And not excusably sloppy, I mean the kind of sloppy that could be fixed with a two-minute Google search, such as the “eggy-in-a-basket” gaffe from V for Vendetta. So, in order to inject a bit of fairness in to this review, before I release the awesomely nitpicky fury of my nerd rage, I'll begin with some positives.
I do want to point out that kids between the ages of, say, 9-14 (assuming the cynicism hasn't set in yet) will likely enjoy it. It might be a little freaky for the really young ones, and anybody in high school is probably too cool for it. Coraline is a fun adventure story and the voice acting is very well done: I am a big fan of Ian MacShane (mainly for his work in Deadwood) and casting Dawn French and Jennifer Saunders (of Absolutely Fabulous) as Misses Forcible and Spink, respectively, was a fantastic idea. And, quite frankly, Keith David kicks ass as the Cat.
Right, now that the compliments are out of the way, let's take a look at the problems. The animation, which for the most part works, occasionally looks as though it came from an old Rankin/Bass Christmas special. It's a little disconcerting to see something that has been flowing smoothly become choppy for a few seconds and then gear back up. Another purely visual issue is the use of 3D. As I mentioned, the first scene is very effective but after that the genuinely 3D portions of the film are split evenly between actually useful moments and moments that somebody decided might as well be 3D because it was already in the budget. I suppose the thought is that a 3D movie needs to use the effect frequently, but by choosing almost arbitrary times to do so, the overall power of what can be a great device is considerably watered down.
The main problem with the movie is that the adaptation was flawed. In my view, it was very flawed. Neil Gaiman states in “Why I Wrote Coraline” that he had intended to write a story for his daughter, Holly, who was 5 at the time. In the Q&A at the back, he also describes the book as “a fairy story in the same way that Hansel and Gretel is a fairy story.” Which is not entirely true; Coraline is an inverted changeling story. For those of you unfamiliar with that sub-genre they go like this: a young couple has just had a baby which is very well behaved and usually extremely adorable. The fairies see the child and get jealous, kidnap it and swap in a fairy in its place. The fairy is usually ill-favored and about as well behaved as Attila the Hun. There are differences of course: the Other Mother would like to steal Coraline's essence in order to strengthen her own (a sort of metaphysical version of the witch eating Hansel and Gretel) rather than keep her around in fairyland, and rather than Coraline getting replaced, it's her parents who have doppelgangers. Coraline, in the book, is a bright, somewhat introverted girl, who is not yet in her teens. She is somewhat hyper-capable (with minimal help she manages to outwit the Other Mother, of which more later), self-collected and has a rather ruthless streak which enables her to actually work out plans of action. The book itself is atmosphere-heavy, and successfully creepy. Even Coraline, while clearly the heroine, is cold-blooded enough to be just a bit off-center.
In the movie, however, Coraline (Dakota Fanning) becomes “the normal one”, a brash tween girl who is a cookie-cutter copy of other brash tween girl heroines. Rather than being a clear-headed strategist, the movie version is self-involved and has to be led by the hand through the plot. In fact, I put her ultimate victory down to luck, rather than any real skill. The focus of the movie is more spectacle than atmosphere (speaking of which, Selick apparently thinks that one creepy house on a hill is just about the same as another. The first shot of Coraline's house, or The Pink Palace, as it is referred to, reminded me very much of James and the Giant Peach.), and elements of cartoonish humor serve to spoil the mood rather than lighten it. One such example involves Mr. Bobinsky (Ian MacShane) doing an acrobatic routine from his upstairs balcony, only to narrowly avoid impaling his crotch on Coraline's garden snips. Somehow, it manages to be spectacularly unfunny. Other minor instances of the laziness endemic to the movie involve the change of location. While the location in the book is never stated, it is clearly England. But (following Eddie Izzard's contention that American movie producers believe we can't relate to foreign settings) the movie takes place in the Pacific Northwest, I suppose this is so that Coraline can be believably rained on. And yet, one of the ghost children continues to use “thee”, “thou”, and “bedlam”, although he is now from, say, 1850s Oregon. Sloppy. Somebody didn't want to change the dialogue and didn't bother to justify it. Oh and speaking of being sloppy and the rain, the very day after Coraline is forbidden to play outdoors because of a downpour, she walks outside and grabs the one remaining piece of luggage still on her parents' car; a noticeably dry hatbox, complete with bone-dry hat. In another scene we're referred to a conversation between two characters that must have ended up on the cutting room floor, but the later reference was left in.
While the above examples are relatively minor, they are symptomatic of the way the movie was produced. Coraline's Mom (Teri Hatcher) has a brace around her neck and we're informed that she's been in an accident. Why? My guess is that Selick (in his capacity as screenwriter) needed a reason for Coraline's Mom to be waspish to her daughter, he seems to have missed out on the fact that his interpretation of Coraline is sufficiently bratty to be annoying. Going back to Coraline-as-changeling-story, any tale involving travel to and from fairy realms involves as definite demarcation between them and regular life. For some reason, Coraline needs a key to open a secret door in order to get to the realm created by the Other Mother, but can return to her own house by sleeping (which necessitates an otherwise pointless plot thread about poison oak). The climax of the film involves the Other Mother's search for that key… but if she can allow Coraline to cross over into our world by the simple expedient of sleep, surely she can cross over without the key. Several important points in the movie seem to have been strongly influenced by (read as: lifted from) other movies. There are several scenes in the Other garden which almost immediately recall Alice in Wonderland. And the scavenger hunt for souls is far more reminiscent of Return To Oz than a fairy tale quest.
The single greatest infraction, however, has to be the introduction of a thoroughly superfluous young male character, likely for the purposes of appealing to a male demographic and allowing for some gross out humor involving banana slugs. While I am not quite as opposed to Wybourne (Robert Bailey, Jr.) as I was after reading the script, the best thing I can say for the character is that he isn't quite as annoying as I thought he was going to be. Wybie shows up riding a scooter and wearing a mask upon which appear to be mounted rotatable camera lenses, bravely appearing so that he and Coraline can indulge in some painfully labored pre-teen banter. The Other Wybie is, if possible, even more of a detriment to the script because it weakens the relationship between Coraline and her Father (John Hodgeman). In the book, Gaiman includes an anecdote about wasps that clearly establishes a bond between Coraline and her dad; as he was writing this for his 5-year-old-daughter, it's reasonable to assume that he had their relationship in mind. In the book, Coraline's Other Father is so faithful a copy of her real Dad that he manages to overcome the Other Mother's wishes and gives Coraline some valuable information (shortly before turning into a mindless shoggoth-like thing that Coraline blinds). In the movie, the Other Father's expository functions are fulfilled by Wybie, while the dramatic blinding scene is rewritten was Coraline running away screaming until the Other Father's mechanical Mantis/tractor (don't ask) steps on a weak spot on a bridge.
After Coraline finally rescues everyone (including the 17th century English Oregonian, the no-longer-a-fairy-child girl and Wybie's Great-Aunt) she is informed that her task is not quite over (the Other Mother's good right hand is skittering about looking for that key). Rather than let the tension build a bit while Coraline schemes her way to victory, Selick decides to just get on with it and steam through to the end. Book Coraline deliberately sets out to trap the Other Mother's hand and get rid of the key at the same time. Movie Coraline decides, on the spur of the moment, to chuck the key down a well in the middle of the night. Clearly, the best time for dealing with evil disembodied hands. Shockingly, she is ambushed and only manages to wrest victory from the jaws of defeat when Deus Ex Wybie shows up. While the movie ending is slightly more palatable than the one in the earlier script (Coraline doesn't inexplicably turn into a helpless ingenue) as it takes teamwork for Coraline and Wybie to defeat the hand, it still isn't remotely an acceptable substitute for the ending of the novel.
In short, rather than waste time and money going to see this flick, buy the book, read it and if you have appropriately aged children, read it to them. If you're still curious enough to see the film, rent it when it comes out on DVD. Preferably through Netflix or Blockbuster as the more cheaply you can see it, the more enjoyable it'll be.