Careful What You Dream Of: Coraline: The Movie
Well-read young viewers at or about the age of the movie's eleven-year-old heroine will find this animated 3-D movie, soothingly, albeit surrealistically, familiar. A spunky young girl finds herself in a cavernous old house with many oddities to explore, including an intriguing door which, when she ventures through it, leads to another world, a strangely beautiful but ultimately dangerous place. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (The Chronicles of Narnia), anyone?
Or how about a cross-tempered young girl, bored and displeased with her family, who follows a scampering rodent down a tunnel to a parallel world in which things are both familiar and frighteningly not what they seem. Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass,right? This faithful frame story device works beautifully in the film of Neil Gaiman's parable of a child who "dreams" up better parents and learns that her real mom and dad, faults and all, are perhaps just what she needs.
Coraline is an all-unwilling new resident in a dilapidated but once grand old house, cut up into rambling apartments, far from her close friends and comforting old life. Her parents are chained to their laptops, telecommuting writers on deadline for a forthcoming garden catalog who are too stressed out to give her the attention she needs and demands. But when pushed out of their workspace to "explore" the house, Coraline discovers a tiny door wall-papered over and teases, begs, and whines until her mother locates the key and cuts through to open the door. Coraline is disappointed to find only a bricked-up wall behind, but that night in her dreams she follows scampering jumping mice through the door, down a glowing tunnel, and into a parallel version of her own life.
There, instead of a dusty, drab apartment strewn with unpacked boxes, she finds a stylish home peopled by her "other" parents, a funny, affectionate, and doting pair led by her "other mother," who cooks delicious-smelling dinners and plays games with her endlessly. At first, Coraline finds that when she falls asleep attended by her "other mother," she awakes in the real world, but when she points out that her faux parents have buttons sewn in instead of eyes, they offer to sew button eyes of her choice on her so that she can remain their doted-upon daughter forever. It's a Faustian bargain--endless smothering attention forever or her old life with her flawed but real parents.
Coraline chooses free will, but getting it back is something else. When she declines to be the dutiful daughter, her "other mom" drops the simpering mask and Coraline sees the selfish fleshless face behind it all. It is the fight of her life for the strong and resilient Coraline, who, with the aid of a sly and sage black cat and a new friend who shares the danger and helps win her wager with the witchly woman, battles her way back to her imperfect real life, a life wherein we see there is always a chance that she will get, not what she may want, but perhaps what she needs and possibly what she deserves.
Like the film, Coraline, in Gaiman's graphic novel book version, is not really a tale for the very young. It is best suited for 'tweens and young teens who are all-too-aware of their parents' imperfections, but still too green to know how hard perfection is to come by in the real world. Coraline's malaise with her family will resonate with this age group, as will her sturdy and courageous drive to take the difficult course to be her own imperfect self in an imperfect but open-ended world.
As the voice of Coraline, Dakota Fanning catches the right tone for her needy but sometimes brattish character, but Teri Hatcher's reading of the "other" mother's voice is spot on, drawn seemingly straight out of the mouths of those happy cartoon cooks illustrating the old Betty Crocker Cookbook. The stop-motion animation is perfectly suited to the dramatic surrealism of the film and the 3-D effects, while occasionally startling, are generally subtle and non-intrusive, never used just for effect but always to advance the mood and plot.
Neil Gaiman, who freely admits that his Newbery Award winning The Graveyard Book draws its framework straight from The Jungle Book(Unabridged Classics), has placed this tale well within the mainstream of children's literature from the Brothers Grimm through the Wild Things right up to the modern day, and director Sellick's translation of the story into cinema only gains artistically in the transition. Rated PG, this is a very good movie, possibly a classic-to-be, which has broad appeal for older children and for adults who will recognize the dark truths beneath the lively and stylized 3-D animation.