February 8, 2009
Just when you thought the sewing box was safe…. (Buttons have never been so malevolent!)
“Coraline” is a 3-D (at select theaters), stop-motion animation, hyper-imaginative, mildly creepy, postmodern fairytale set in the rainy Northwest and…a parallel universe. Actually, it’s adolescent Coraline’s ideal, CLONED universe with her “other mother": you know, the good kind of mother that serves your favorite food, dotes only on you, and lets you do whatever you want. What starts off as a dream world becomes a nightmare, and Coraline learns to appreciate her real, not-perfect,* but loving parents. (Moms and Dads everywhere are going to LOVE this movie.) Dakota Fanning EXCELLENTLY voices Coraline with loads of nuanced expression (a very tricky feat)!
“Coraline” is postmodern because Coraline and her family are postmodern: a bit removed from nature, rather cynical and sarcastic, and in place of religion there are all sorts of superstitions and occultisms, notwithstanding the fact that this IS a magical tale (voodoo-type dolls, reading tea leaves, amulets). Also, “Coraline” is postmodern because the horror (although not accessed via computer) is that of being trapped in a computer-like virtual world of someone else’s making, where things can fade to a terrifying white nothingness. It’s playfully hinted that Coraline might be a witch (she employs the dubious practice of “water witching” or “dowsing” at the beginning of the film, and cries out “I’m a witch!” when taking on her nemesis). A talking black cat is her mentor.
Both our heroine, the spunky Coraline, and villain, the creepy “other mother,” are women. One could Freudianly read into the smotherlove of “the other mother” who turns into a spider and traps Coraline in her web (the cat adds that the other mother might also want to eat Coraline), but we won’t go there. (The other mother wants everyone to be happy all the time, and wants to love and be loved forever in a very clingy, selfish way: “I’ll die without you!”) This is a rather matriarchal movie: Coraline’s real mom is the acknowledged “boss.” Coraline’s boy neighbor lives in fear of his grandmother. The tunnel connecting the two worlds is much like a birth canal. However, there were plenty of guys of all ages in my packed cinema, and they all loved it (I heard them talking on the way out).
Coraline’s self-confident attitude reminded me of the book “Reviving Ophelia,” by Mary Pipher--how tween girls have a real sense of self that they often seem to lose in their teen years. However, with today’s social networking, I wonder if that has somehow changed a bit (the book is at least ten years old).
The production values are phenomenal, boasting some of the sharpest life-like detail I’ve seen in animated movies yet (note the needle and fabric during the opening credits). The tone is rather quiet and reflective. Anything can and does happen in the “other world.” Animals and flowers are personified in both delightful and frightening ways. (Andrew Stanton, creator of “Wall-E,” says that animators see the entire world as alive; e.g., he said that when an animator watches a leaf fall to the ground, they think think: “Ouch!”) There are strong archetypes like the GARDEN. First: no garden. Second: a perfect fake garden. Third: a hostile fake garden. Fourth: a homely real garden. I’m sure Coraline’s origami and barrette dragonflies mean something, too.
Two ancient former burlesque queens who aid Coraline are comic relief, but at one point, they put on a show, and the one with the Monty Python-esque outsized breasts is practically naked for quite a spell, and it borders on the pornographic. (Porn is created in today’s very realistic computer animation, so, cartoonish as this portrayal was, it was highly inappropriate/irresponsible in a PG movie).
In order to stay in her perfect world, Coraline must agree to have her eyes removed and buttons sewn in their place (not as gory as it sounds) like all this world’s inhabitants. Coraline will not go that far, but when her parents are parent-napped and taken to the “other world,” Coraline must return and save them at her own peril. She must also find the eyes of three ghostly children trapped in the other world. Once their eyes are returned to them, their souls will be freed.
Is “Coraline” too dark for kids under, say, nine? I would say no (but each child has their own sensibilities). Kids seem to love dark fairytales (like the live action “Matilda”) because they DO fear the monsters and bogeymen in their lives (real or imagined), and they love to see a young person triumph over them. (Personally, when I was a kid, I couldn’t handle anything scary, because I instinctively knew that in real life the bad guy sometimes wins. I hadn’t yet realized that in Hollywood, the good guy always wins, and so I’d get lost in the sheer endless terror of the moment. (The new movie "Wendy and Lucy" was only rated R because the MPAA didn't think kids could handle that fact that life doesn't always turn out as we would like!!!!) When I was about nine, I almost snapped watching Doris Day in “Midnight Lace,” because the bad guy came through a little window with a lace curtain like I had in MY bedroom. My mother found me screaming in front of the TV and sent me to bed. Alone. Where the lace curtain was. As you can tell, I was scarred for life. (My mother was not perfect.) I also freaked out (at about age eleven) watching a live action “Alice in Wonderland” in the middle of the day on our black and white TV. Everyone had two sides, good and bad, except the Jabberwock (who looked like Satan), who turned around and showed that he had no good side, he was just pure evil. I blew an existential gasket. So, know your kids.
Although it seems the filmmakers would like “Coraline” to be about “seeing,” that theme is not fully developed. It’s more about embracing an imperfect world. Coraline has “good enough” parents, and Coraline even has delightfully imperfect teeth just like her Mom’s. (Teeth give character! Cher and Nicholas Cage should never have had their teeth done.) As one character says: “The better world is a trap,” or, as the saying goes: “The best is the enemy of the good.”
Films “Coraline” reminded me of:
“Boy in the Striped Pajamas”—a child’s quest to save parents
“Gattaca”—human imperfection is OK
Any Tim Burton film (Henry Selick also directed Tim Burton’s “A Nightmare Before Christmas,” also “James and the Giant Peach”). Lots of spindly characters….
My favorite scene (spoiler alert!):
When Coraline’s real Mom buys her the funky gloves after telling her she couldn’t have them. Isn’t that just like a Mom? (But 24.95??? On sale???)
___________*Mom also has fat thighs. Yay!