I’ve been bananas to see Coraline since it was released, and I got the chance this weekend.

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Naturally, I adore Neil Gaiman, and director Henry Selick did a great job on the daunting flights of fantasy that were James and the Giant Peach (another adaptation of a beloved children’s book) and The Nightmare Before Christmas.  As with any good 3D film, the credits rock. A sinister-looking skeletal hand wields a sewing needle and thread, attaching buttons to a limp rag doll. The needle plunges toward and away from the audience, drawing us in as if we are the buttons. By the time the film starts, we’re hooked.

A note about the voice work. I’m not a fan of Dakota Fanning or Teri Hatcher, but they both do a fine job here. Fanning’s got Coraline’s wry, nonchalant snarkiness down pat, and Hatcher’s voice adapts easily between the parts of absent-minded mother, cloyingly warmhearted Other Mother, and malevolent witch.

Coraline’s a persnickety 11-yr-old girl who’s recently moved to a peculiar old apartment building inhabited by some eccentric neighbors. 

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Her writer parents are vaguely affectionate but mostly distracted, and she grows lonely, bored and disgruntled in her new home.

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Coraline discovers a small locked door and travels through it to the Other World, where she meets her Other Mother and Other Father—far more attentive and fun-loving than her real parents, but with buttons for eyes.

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The 3D stop-motion animation is magnificent. The film is whimsically tinted, particularly when Coraline makes the move from her own foggy, lackluster world
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to the more tantalizingly vibrant Other World. The 3D really punctuates the boisterously surreal nature of the Other World.

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The Other World first appears to be a childlike utopia. Coraline’s Other Parents surprise her with presents, baked goods and songs written just for her; her sad, crazy neighbors in the real world are glamorous circus performers here; and in the Other World, Coraline’s obnoxiously loud-mouthed real world neighbor, Wybie, is pleasantly silent. Other Mother sweetly explains that she sewed his mouth shut to make Coraline happy.

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Coraline has aspirations of being a gardener, but hasn’t been able to convince her real parents (who, incidentally, write about gardening) to get outside in the dirt to start a garden. Her Other Father creates a glorious enchanted garden in her likeness. The extravagant garden sequence is a breathtaking pageant of color, light and movement. The careening flowers and spirited hummingbirds make the absolute most of the 3D animation.

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But the Other World quickly takes a turn for the disturbing. Other Mother doesn’t like to share Coraline. The rest of the players in the Other World—Other Father, Other Neighbors— turn out to be rueful puppets. Things get scary quickly. 

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A lot of reviews have faulted the film for being too frightening for younger viewers. I’m all about protecting the children, but they’re made of stronger stuff than most adults credit. My favorite movies as a kid were Watcher in the Woods

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 and Something Wicked This Way Comes.

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 These are not light-hearted movies. Kids like to be scared in the insulated safety of a movie theater. Coraline cultivates that fun, cozy fright, in the same way that Halloween and ghost stories are childhood favorites. Our audience for Coraline was filled with kids and they gasped, giggled, oohed and ahhed with the rest of us. More telling, Coraline herself never cowers. With her love of gardening and exploring, Coraline’s a great role model. She’s active and outdoorsy and shows no interest in Barbie dolls, TV or video games. As her surroundings grow more menacing and her situation grows more dangerous, Coraline shows an admirable amount of pluck, courage and smarts. She’s got integrity, too. After her curiosity about the Other World wanes, she doesn’t let her Other Parents tempt her with presents or spectacle. She’ll do anything to make it back to her real parents, but still takes the time to help other lost souls who have been enchanted by this world.

Like Coraline herself, the film explores some dark corners. Even when she’s not dealing with otherworldly evil, Coraline has to negotiate some seriously imperfect parents, and the film never sugarcoats that. But the overall atmosphere is whimsical, affirmative and marvelously strange. Selick does a solid job of capturing that wild, exhilarating feeling of turning to the first page of a new book or discovering an ancient well in your backyard.

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Coraline appeals to the explorer in all of us, and while rambling can be dangerous, life’s not much fun without it.

5 Responses to “Coraline”

  1. after reading this fabulous review, i’m dying to see coraline!!!


    also, it’s good to know that teri hatcher’s voice is more palatable when her face isn’t involved.

  2. What a lovely and thorough review. I was afraid at first that it might be a spoiler-filled Ebert-esque review, but it was just a very thorough outline of what to expect. I really want to see it now, great use of screenshots.

  3. Yay for Coraline! I absolutely loved this movie. There so much to look at and they really pull off the stop-motion animation. I thought this review captured the fun of the film without giving too much away. I agree that it is a bit creepy for kids but they totally see worse things on television now. One of my favorite movies as a kid, Pee-wee’s Big Adventure, had that part where Large Marge’s face temporarily exploded. I loved that part but I had to cover my eyes like 90% of the time. In hindsight, not creepy but whatever.

  4. Yay, Coraline! I love movies that are as lovely to look at as they are to watch. I can’t wait to see it.

    I like the point you made about kids enjoying being scared at the movies, cause I think that’s totally true. Kids are a lot more resiliant than we give them credit for. Of course, when I was a kid, I injected scary thrills into movies that didn’t actually have them – for a solid ten years, I thought that Cocoon was a horror flick. Although I still maintain that old people are really scary. Esp. old people who have sex with each other. Gross.

  5. Yeah, dude. I was WAY overdramatic about Jabba the Hut when I saw Jedi as a child. Not to mention Darth Vader. Great review, Mere! Such a well made movie!

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