Not Your Mother's Rabbit Hole
Coraline / Agent Bedhead
Film Reviews | February 7, 2009 | Comments ()
Eyes are the windows to the soul, or so we’ve been told countless times. Sometimes, however, we cannot trust even our own eyes, for looks can often be deceiving. This disturbing duality forms the basis for Coraline, a spooky film with an ominous “be careful what you wish for” tagline that sets the tone for the cautionary tale within. Simultaneously anxiety-inducing and affecting, Coraline is an exquisitely attractive film that never achieves its visuals at the expense of the story itself. This seemingly impossible feat occurs through an astonishingly effective collaboration between Neil Gaiman, author of the 2002 horror novella, and director-screenwriter Henry Selick (A Nightmare Before Christmas, James and the Giant Peach). So much could have gone wrong on the way to the big screen in the hands of a lesser director, but Selick has achieved the fairly tenuous balance between his own craftsmanship and Gaiman’s work. This total integration took seven bloody years to achieve, and, quite frankly, I am amazed that Selick never went insane during the entire process.
Coraline is, of course, an adaptation of a much beloved book, which was spawned from bedtime stories that Gaiman told his own daughters before weaving these tales into his own sparingly detailed and characteristically clear prose. Those familiar with Gaiman’s writing will recognize that, although his work is often subject to multiple interpretations on the larger themes of life (and death), he doesn’t prescribe any particular meaning for his readers. For that matter, Gaiman doesn’t bother wasting words on anything that is inessential to the plot. Such simplicity, however, is often beguiling in the case of an author whose prose often descends into fantasy with no notice at all. In a dizzying yet deft manner, Selick uses his own dazzling style to smoothly guide the plot through such transitions. The director does, however, make a few judgment calls to both Americanize the tale and add a new character. Those small changes aside this is a faithful adaptation of the source material. Now, on with the phantasmagoria.
Coraline Jones (Dakota Fanning) and her parents move to Oregon, land of everlasting drizzle. In these dreary new surroundings, Coraline finds herself with everything that she needs but nothing that she wants. She misses her old friends, and her Mother (Teri Hatcher) and Father (John Hodgman), who are both writers with deadlines to meet, only pay as much attention to daughter as is required by law. So, Coraline attempts to engage herself but is unable to relate to her attic level neighbor, an allegedly drunk trapeze artist named Mr. Bobinsky (Ian McShane, or her basement neighbors, a pair of burlesque dancers named Miss Spink (Jennifer Saunders) and Miss Forcible (Dawn French), whose glory days have long since past. The closest thing to a friend that Coraline encounters is a somewhat irritating boy, Wybie Lovat (Robert Bailey Jr.), whom she would prefer to just shut up. In short, the young girl is very lonely, quite bored, and vulnerable to temptation. At this point, Selick’s pacing is such that we feel the full banality of Coraline’s frustrations at living in a grey, lifeless flat with nothing to do but stare outside at the rain. As such, when Coraline decides to open the little door in one of her home’s walls, we fully feel her exhilaration as she crawls through a portal resembling an otherworldly umbilical cord and emerges within a reality almost identical to her own, only much better.
This alternate world is much cheerier and brighter, as well as pretty much everything that Coraline has longed for. Her “other” parents (also voiced by Hatcher and Hodgman) are attentive and nurturing. Coraline thinks she could never be happier, but she gets the feeling that something seems just a bit off because all people, animals, and toys have buttons instead of eyes. Well, all except for an enigmatic Cat, who strolls through both realities but, in the alternate world, speaks with the dulcet tones of Keith David. The Cat arrives with a warning: “You probably think this other world is a dream come true. But you’re wrong.” Coraline attempts to brush this remark aside, but her unease is confirmed when the Other Mother presents a gift box containing a sewing needle and two black buttons, which must replace the girl’s own eyes if she wishes to stay. The Other Mother insists, “Soon, you’ll see things our way,” and, as Coraline recoils in horror, so does the audience. Things get even creepier from that point on.
Adding to the audience’s immersion, along with all of the exceptional voice talent involved with this film, is the realism of Selick’s old-school stop motion animation that was created, frame-by-frame, pose-by-pose, puppet-by-puppet, and with stunningly careful attention to detail and movement. After a restrained sprinkling of 3D effects, the respective inertia and kinetic energy of Coraline’s two different worlds feel real. Unlike the binary robotics of CGI, Coraline, as a film and as a heroine, seems as alive to us as the animators themselves. Many 3D flicks these days are scripted around the 3D gimmicks themselves, but, in contrast, Coraline is merely enhanced by its 3D touches, which makes everything feel quite comfortable and altogether natural, aside from a shiver-inducing sewing needle during the opening credits. Most of the 3D here isn’t used to intrude upon the audience but instead to provide contrast and depth to the stop-motion animation. The total effect, although subtle, is that, instead of jumping away from the film, the audience gets pulled into the story. How odd that a director has resisted the temptation of ejaculating all over his audience with all of the 3D wizardry now readily accessible and available. It’s quite the novel approach, really.
This is an achingly gorgeous film, crafted in diligent detail and accompanied by Bruno Coulais’ deathly beautiful score. Much like the heroine herself, Coraline is clever and inquisitive but more than slightly surly at times. Actually, a good measure of the third act comes with quite a bit of scariness for children under ten years. Coraline may come with a PG-rating, but this is really more of a PG² sort of movie. Don’t be surprised if, after watching this film, you awaken with a nightmarish start, only to discover that a whimpering child is attempting to climb into your bed in the middle of the night. Whew.
Agent Bedhead lives in Tulsa, Oklahoma and can be found at agentbedhead.com.