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On Changeling Parents and Captured Souls
The Register’s film critic reviews the stop-motion animated Coraline, which ‘comes closer to the spirit of the traditional European fairy tale than almost any other film, animated or otherwise, in recent memory.’
By STEVEN D. GREYDANUS
Here is what
I sometimes tell my younger children on those infrequent occasions when they
wake up in the middle of the night terrified after a nightmare — especially if
the experience makes them feel unprotected by God or their guardian angel.
“I know it seems like bad dreams are
something bad that just happens to you. But I think most dreams, good or bad,
are like stories that we tell ourselves — stories that a part of your brain
tells to another part of your brain. Sometimes good stories, sometimes scary stories
… but stories we make up ourselves, with a different part of our brain.
And I think that part of us usually knows what it’s doing — and God knows that.
Maybe being scared in a dream helps you to be braver when bad things happen in
the real world. But now that the dream is over, you don’t have to worry about
having it again. You won’t; I promise. You’ll see in the morning.”
Something like that seems the right
place to begin with Coraline, a dark
fantasy with surreal elements that feel like a story that a little girl tells
herself, initially for comfort and amusement, until the disquieting elements
take over and the dream becomes a nightmare. Even then, though, there are signs
that the little girl is still ultimately in control, still telling the story herself.
Fantasy writer Neil Gaiman says his
2002 novella Coraline was in fact built around key
themes from stories that his daughter Holly made up when she was 4 or 5 years
old — stories about a girl named Holly whose mother gets kidnapped by a witch
that resembles the mother. Why would a little girl invent such a theme? Where
does that come from? A part of the brain that knows what it’s doing, I suspect.
The choice of stop-motion animation
for the big-screen version of Coraline is an
inspired one for a story that involves an uncanny rag doll with button eyes
that bears a striking resemblance to the young protagonist. Dolls, like clowns
and carousels, can be charming or magical, but the possibility for creepiness
is always just around the corner.
Likewise, stop-motion animation,
which involves photographing articulated figures — dolls — one frame at a time,
making tiny movements between shots to create the illusion of movement, can be
delightful, like Aardman’s Wallace & Gromit
and “Shaun the Sheep” (see “DVD Picks”), or matter-of-factly miraculous, like The
Still, the technique seems
well-suited to creepiness: Witness Tim Burton’s Corpse
Bride, as well as the previous efforts of Coraline
writer-director Henry Selick, The Nightmare Before Christmas
and James and the Giant Peach. (Is it a
coincidence that even Wallace and Gromit’s adventures usually take the form of
spoofs of thriller/horror films?)
Although the discovery of a parallel
world accessed through a magical portal in her parents’ new home is where the
weirdness really gets started for young Coraline (voiced by Dakota Fanning),
it’s the haunting stop-motion magic of her own world that opens the door to the
magic of that other world.
In a dreamlike way, Coraline is
intrigued, but not totally freaked out, by the nocturnal discovery of an
alternate version of her home, a ramshackle Victorian house with attic and
basement apartments, where she meets surreal counterparts of her parents
(voiced in both worlds by Teri Hatcher and John Hodgman), the eccentric
upstairs and downstairs neighbors, and neighborhood boy Wybie (Robert Bailey
Jr.), whose aunt owns the house Coraline’s parents and neighbors are renting.
Even the nightmarish twist that
these alternate-world residents, who otherwise look pretty much like the real
thing, have sewn button eyes like Coraline’s rag doll in lieu of real eyes
doesn’t send Coraline screaming back to the real world — a sure mark of the
dream logic of her adventures.
In fact, doll eyes notwithstanding,
Coraline is rather taken with this alternate world, which, in many ways, she
finds preferable to her humdrum real-world life.
Her real parents, both writers, are
too swamped with work to pay attention to Coraline or even keep the fridge
stocked. By contrast, the Other Mother seems warmly solicitous and cheerily
domestic, preparing lavish feasts for Coraline’s visits (in a typically
unsettling touch, the parents don’t touch the food themselves), while the Other
Father whimsically whiles away his time at a piano.
But if the eyes are the windows of
the soul, a world of people with doll-like sewn button eyes can’t be wholesome
— and presently, Coraline becomes aware of the sinister agenda underlying the
Other Mother’s sweet demeanor. (Even in the real world, Coraline’s father calls
her mother “the boss.”)
eventually affirms Coraline’s real parents over her fantasy ones, the film
waits too long to attempt the parents’ redemption, and the ending comes off as
rote and not really earned (a little like the romantic final scene of The
Nightmare Before Christmas). A better film might have humanized the
parents more throughout the film, perhaps mitigating their unavailability with
more conflict and evident affection for Coraline.
Perhaps, too, Coraline might have
been allowed some petulance and room to grow.
As scary as things get, Coraline is
never completely overwhelmed. A savvy cat that travels between both worlds
(Keith David) acts as an anchor, and from the moment Coraline challenges the
Other Mother to a game, it’s clear who’s really in charge.
For stop-motion auteur Selick, Coraline
is a technical triumph. The most ambitious and sophisticated stop-motion film
ever created, Coraline is filmed in stereoscopic 3-D
(look for a theater offering the 3-D experience), with an unprecedented range
of complexity and expressive nuance comparable to computer animation.
At 100 minutes, Coraline
feels a little longer than it needs to, though it’s never boring, and its
beguiling world is so lovingly realized that you understand Selick’s reluctance
to leave it. With its dark tale of changeling parents and captured souls, it
comes closer to the spirit of the traditional European fairy tale than almost
any other film, animated or otherwise, in recent memory.
Steven D. Greydanus is editor
and chief critic at DecentFilms.com.
advisory: Creepy imagery, scary
scenes and menace to a child; disturbing domestic themes in a fantasy setting;
a couple of instances of divination (dowsing, tea leaves); mild burlesque-style
humor. Too scary for many children.
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