By Steve Herte
Coraline (Focus Features, 2009) – Director: Henry Selick. Writers: Henry Selick (s/p). Neil Gaiman (book). Voices: Dakota Fanning, Teri Hatcher, Jennifer Saunders, Dawn French, Keith David, John Hodgman, Robert Bailey, Jr., Ian McShane, Aankha Neal, George Selick, Hannah Kaiser, Henry Selick, Marina Budovsky, Emerson Tenney, & Jerome Ranft. Animated, Color, Rated PG, 100 minutes.
When I first saw advertisements of Coraline, I was sure Tim Burton had something to do with it because it was so similar in look to The Nightmare Before Christmas. As it turns out, the only things the two movies have in common are the stop-motion animation and director Henry Selick. What a surprise. I borrowed the DVD from a friend and I’m glad I did.
The story is excellent and teaches a lesson in the nicest, but scariest, way. Coraline Jones (Fanning) and her parents Charlie (Hodgman) and Mel (Hatcher) move into this old Victorian three-level house called the Pink Palace Apartments. They share the house with the ridiculously acrobatic Mr. Sergei Alexander Bobinsky (McShane) upstairs, and two wacky, elderly actresses – Miss April Spink (Saunders) and Miss Miriam Forcible (French) downstairs.
Coraline is a savvy, active teenager who desperately wants to be with and do things with her parents but she’s having a hard time even communicating with them. Both are too busy at their computers – Mom writing a gardening catalogue and Dad is slowly doing who knows what – to pay Coraline the kind of attention she needs. Charlie tells her to explore the house and count the windows and Mel tells her to finish the unpacking.
Coraline finds a door in the wallpaper of the dining room and begs her Mom for the key. Strangely enough, there is a drawer full of keys, but only one has a handle the shape of a button. It fits, the door is opened and a wall of bricks is all they see.
Disappointed, Coraline dons her yellow coat and goes out. She feels she’s being stalked and soon makes the acquaintance of a mangy black cat and her neighbor, Wyborne ‘Wybie’ Lovat (Bailey), who talks so much she soon calls him “Why were you born?” Wybie gives her a gift he claims was made by his grandmother. It’s a doll with blue hair (just like Coraline) and a yellow coat (just like Coraline) with two buttons for eyes. Though she groans about being too old for dolls, but she accepts it and calls it “Little Me.”
That’s when her adventures begin. One night, she hears a mouse in her bedroom. It’s a long-tailed jumping mouse. She follows it downstairs and it vanishes behind the door in the wallpaper. Looking in, she no longer sees the brick wall, but a magical glowing blue passageway to an identical door in the distance. She crawls through to a duplicate dining room to her own, only this one is nicely decorated and set for dinner.
She goes to the kitchen and finds her Mom cooking! Mom doesn’t cook, Dad does, and it’s always awful. This Mom however is an excellent cook. The only thing odd is that she has buttons for eyes. Dad is in his study playing piano, or rather, the piano is playing him and he sings a song about Coraline. He too has buttons for eyes. Though suspicious, Coraline loves the attention she’s getting from both of them and, after a feast of a dinner, she goes up to bed in her beautiful room where all her toys are alive.
She wakes up the next morning in her own bed in her boring house with her own inattentive parents. After a few one-way conversations, she longs to return to the alternate reality and even baits the floor with cheese to attract the jumping mice. It works.
She soon learns that not only are her “other” parents everything she could want them to be, Wybie can’t talk, but the Cat (David) can. The two elderly actresses are just disguises for two lovely young women who put on a show for her, and Mr. Bobinsky has a circus in his apartment featuring the music-playing, dancing, jumping mice. She’s delighted.
But it’s all a trap set by the evil Beldam, a metallic, spidery creature who wants her eyes and wants to sew buttons in their place. Coraline is put into a situation where she has to find her parents (taken hostage by Beldam) and free the spirits of previous child victims in order to unweave Beldam’s web.
On a Halloween-like parallel to The Wizard of Oz, this film says “be careful what you wish for.” It does so with flawless animation, clean but dark humor, and an excellent soundtrack. The DVD has commentary by director Henry Selick and composer Bruno Coulais, which are interesting and a plethora of trailers of future movies, which are not as interesting. Sorry kids, there are no Coraline games to play. But the movie is worth it.
Rating: 4 out of 5 Martini glasses.