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Read the (Book) Review Before You See the Movie: Coraline

by Mel Valentin

After more than three years in production, Neil Gaiman’s ("The Graveyard Book," "Anansi Boys," "American Gods," "Stardust," "Neverwhere," "Good Omens," "Sandman") 2002 Hugo-, Nebula-, and Bram Stoker Young Readers-Award winning novella, "Coraline" will arrive on North American theater screens through Henry Selick’s feature-length film, the first stop-motion animation film shot in stereoscopic 3D. Fans of Gaiman’s novella will be happy to find remarkably faithful adaptation adapted, designed, and directed by Henry Selick ("James and the Giant Peach," "A Nightmare Before Christmas"). Moviegoers unfamiliar with the novella will understandably wonder whether dark fantasy ostensibly written for children will appeal to adults as well. The short answer: "Coraline" in either the written or cinematic form will appeal to readers or moviegoers with a taste for an "Alice in Wonderland"-like sojourn into a darkly dangerous world filled with Other Mothers, Other Fathers, talking cats, theater-going Scottie dogs, cleverly malicious rats, and mouse circuses.

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Gaiman’s novella centers on Coraline Jones, a preteen girl who, along with her parents, moves into an apartment in the so-called “Pink Palace.” With only three neighbors, Miss Spink and Miss Forcible, former theater actresses, and Mr. Bobo (Mr. Bobinski in the film), a former circus acrobat and mouse circus trainer, and her parents obsessed with their respective writing projects, Caroline is left alone to explore the Pink Palace and its environs. She discovers an old, abandoned well, boarded up for safety’s sake, and a feral black cat that follows her at a distance.

Wandering through the house, Coraline finds a locked door in the family’s drawing room. Pandora-like, Coraline convinces her mother to open the door, but she’s disappointed by what she sees: a brick wall. The same night, however, noise awakens Coraline from sleep. She follows the noise down the stairs and back to the drawing room where the door, now open to a passageway, beckons. The ever-curious Coraline enters the passageway and walks through the other side, where she encounters a parallel world where she meets her Other Mother and her Other Father. They’re identical to Coraline’s “real” parents in everything but one respect: they have black button eyes. Coraline’s other parents offer her everything she didn’t have but always desperately wanted: their undivided attention, every variety of food she can imagine, a bedroom filled with sentient toys.

Coraline is a Brothers Grimm-style cautionary tale embodied by the phrase, “Be careful what you wish for”(the tagline, not coincidentally, for the cinematic adaptation). Caroline learns a lesson in the dangers of wish fulfillment, parent appreciation, and self-determination as she struggles to overcome the Other Mother’s voracious, suffocating maternal instinct. As a willful, but no less brave, girl, Coraline is the perfect heroine for children (and some adults). Coraline’s simple, straightforward themes are simply expressed through sparse descriptions (all the better for children and adults to fill in the details), making Coraline perfect for children in Coraline’s age group (roughly 8-12). But where Coraline really excels is in the Other World Gaiman creates for his heroine. It’s both comfortably familiar and discomfortingly unfamiliar, turning parental figures, especially the counterfeit Other Mother, into a source of danger.

Coraline ultimately succeeds as all-ages fiction thanks to Gaiman’s ability to create an identifiable world (or worlds) while tapping into primal, universal experiences: parental figures as the source of comfort and security and fears and anxieties in the other. With its black humor and dark fantasy elements, it’s easy to see why Selick wanted to translate Coraline from the written word to the intensely visual medium of film, through the labor-, resource-, and time-intensive stop-motion animation format in stereoscopic 3D, the better to translate Coraline from a private, immersive experience to a public, theatrical one.

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originally posted: 02/04/09 15:05:14
last updated: 02/04/09 16:02:33
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