Coraline (2009)

2010 #53
Henry Selick | 100 mins | Blu-ray | PG / PG

I’ve only ever read one thing by Neil Gaiman. It’s not fan-favourite Neverwhere, nor the previously-adapted Stardust. It’s not Hugo-winners American Gods or The Graveyard Book, nor the Hugo-withdrawn Anansi Boys. It’s not any of Sandman. It’s not even Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader?, his take on Batman.

And it’s not Coraline either.

Which is a shame, because either that or “I’ve never read anything by Neil Gaiman” would have made much better introductions. Indeed, the latter was my original plan, but honesty overcame me — I’ve read his graphic novel/miniseries Marvel 1602. And I just remembered that I’ve also read Good Omens, the novel he co-wrote with Terry Pratchett. So much for my neat little introduction.

But regardless of one’s familiarity with Gaiman, his work comes recommended. Coraline alone won a Hugo, Nebula and Stoker, while the film adaptation was Oscar-nominated (naturally it lost to whichever Pixar film was eligible) and widely well reviewed (an 89% Tomatometer). All of which seems to set it up for a fall. But like, say, The Dark Knight*, it manages to fulfil its promise — Coraline, in short, is excellent.

Where to begin? Well, Coraline is a fairytale, really, albeit a modern one — it doesn’t come at you with princesses or witches or talking animals, but Volkswagens and new homes and stairlifts (all or none of those may be significant to the plot). The fact it’s a fairytale is perhaps neither here nor there, though I do think it pushes aside some logic complaints I’ve seen levelled against the film — do we need a villain’s origins, for example? No, not here. I’m not saying Coraline uses its fairytale basis as an excuse to toss aside narrative sense, just that, if viewed through the prism of “fairytale story rules” rather than “real-world fantasy story rules” some viewers may have been more forgiving. Also, I’m digressing into a critical blind alley.

It’s also a Proper fairytale, by which I mean two things: one, it has a moral message; two, it’s scary. Very scary, in places. For much of the film there’s a beautiful creepy atmosphere, enhanced by drifting fog and skewed camera angles, but towards the end — when (I write while trying not to spoil too much) the full truth of the Other Mother is revealed — it’s not just kids who are likely to be freaked out. Dark themes and situations abound, though the full implications of some are pared back or glossed past, probably with good reason. Coraline is a “kid’s film” but, like writer/director Henry Selick’s previous The Nightmare Before Christmas or much of Pixar’s output, it’s as least as enjoyable for adults.

And as for the moral subtext… well, it may be very familiar — “be careful what you wish for” and/or “you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone” — but Gaiman and Selick certainly have a new, fantastical, mythical spin on it. Some critics say the story is arranged from plot points seen elsewhere and lacks originality, but then critics of everything say that because every story has roots in another. Coraline’s telling displays more than enough originality to keep it going, thankyouverymuch.

The animation, however, is an undeniable triumph. Set and character designs are gorgeous; the stop-motion movement is fluid, nuanced and detailed; the numerous technical accomplishments impressive. Sequence after sequence dazzles, each more magical — or frightening — than the last. Even if you want to criticise the story or characters, I find it hard to believe anyone could watch this and not enjoy much or all of it on a visual level. And if you don’t — honestly, are you sure you like films?

Only occasionally is one reminded that Coraline was filmed in 3D, when things poke out towards the screen or sink deep into it; but it’s not gratuitous, and if you didn’t know it was designed for 3D you might not even notice. The flattened sets and awkward perspective of the real world, versus the depth and beauty of the Other one, are still conveyed well in 2D. (I’ve had a brief look at the 3D version contained on the Blu-ray disc and will report my views on that another time, when I’ve attempted to watch it in full.)

Much like the animation, Bruno Coulais’ score is hauntingly beautiful. OK, it’s undoubtedly Elfman-esque, but it fits the film to a tee. Also in the audio realm (yes, this is a tenuous link to join two brief comments in a single paragraph), the voice cast are all spot-on, from seasoned pros like French and Saunders to bright young thing Dakota Fanning. Some may take issue with her vocal, or the character, but… well, allow me to employ a longer paragraph:

Reading some other reviews and their comments, it becomes apparent that one’s opinion of the film may depend a little on one’s opinion of Coraline herself. Roger Ebert, for example, considers her to be “not a nice little girl… unpleasant, complains, has an attitude and makes friends reluctantly”, though he notes that “it’s fine with me that Coraline is an unpleasant little girl. It would be cruelty to send Pippi Longstocking down that tunnel, but Coraline deserves it. Maybe she’ll learn a lesson.” For me, however, Coraline is an independent and strong-willed individual with good reason for most of her grievances. Does she need to learn a lesson? Undoubtedly. This is a fairytale, after all, and lesson-learning is more-or-less the point. Perhaps if you think Coraline is unlikeable and deserves the woes heaped upon her you’ll like the film less (I should add that Ebert gave it three-out-of-four, however); but if you get on with the character — and I’m certain many among the film’s supposed target audience, kids, would — then she’s a likeable companion to learn the story’s lesson with.

In general, I’m unconvinced by the criticisms I’ve read. Even those who assert it’s too scary for children tend to have shown it to kids who were too young — please, think about what Parental Guidance actually means before you go showing a PG to a three-year-old. All I can end with is a reiteration of my earlier comment: Coraline, in short, is excellent.

5 out of 5

* I’m well aware I could choose any number of classic films whose reputation precedes them. The Dark Knight, however, is similar to Coraline in that it’s a recent release where we’re looking at a year or two of praise & rewards rather than decades of considered thought. Ergo, it’s a better point of reference.

Coraline begins on Sky Movies Premiere today at 10am and 5:30pm, and is on every day at various times until Thursday 10th June.

It placed 6th on my list of The Ten Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2010, which can be read in full here.

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