Magazine | March 9, 2009, Issue

Fairy Tale and Nightmare

A review of Coraline

I don’t know how young I was when my well-meaning parents took me to see Darby O’Gill and the Little People, one of the Walt Disney Company’s live-action efforts from the Eisenhower era, which was being screened for some sort of kids’ movie day at the local university. Young enough, certainly, that I don’t recall much about the film — not the songs, not the blarney-encrusted plot, not even Sean Connery in one of his early leading roles. All I remember is the harrowing conclusion, when the banshee, the herald of death, made a spectral, fluorescent-green appearance — and close on its keening heels came the shadowy “death coach,” with a headless horseman driving silhouetted steeds across mists and scudding clouds. And even these details are sketchy in my memory (I tracked down the scene on YouTube for the purposes of this review), since the moment the death coach creaked on screen I rushed wailing from the theater, my harried father close behind.

Unless your preteen child is especially tough-minded, I would keep this cautionary tale in mind when trying to decide whether to take the whole family to see Coraline, a stop-motion-animated, 3-D-enhanced adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s slim, award-winning 2002 fairy tale. It’s one of the best non-Pixar children’s movies of recent vintage, but it’s also far and away the creepiest, woven through with uncanniness and studded with moments of pure horror. Today’s younger generation is probably too jaded to quail at a banshee (especially one conjured up through the cumbersome magic of late-’50s special effects), but I’m pretty sure that there are terrors in Coraline capable of sending many a seven-year-old squealing for the exits.

The movie’s set-up is the stuff of great stories and bad dreams. Coraline Jones (voiced by Dakota Fanning) is the resourceful, blue-haired daughter of two distracted parents, who finds herself adrift in the rambling, decaying multi-family Victorian where her family has rented an apartment. There are bizarre neighbors upstairs and down — a mustachioed, potbellied Russian in the attic, and two fading, coquettish actress sisters in the basement — and an annoying, motorbike-riding boy who lives next door and pals around with a prickly cat. But what Coraline wants is her parents’ attention, and they’re too busy writing garden catalogues (while the house’s actual garden languishes untended) to notice.

What she gets instead is a secret door, bricked-up by day, that opens by night into an alternative version of her house and life, in which her “other mother” and “other father” are always loving and attentive, the neighbors put on mouse circuses and song-and-dance numbers round the clock, and the out-of-doors blooms with exotic flora that resolve, when viewed from above, into a landscaped version of Coraline’s face. Amid this garden of earthly delights, the only dissonant notes are struck by the supercilious cat, who claims to be the same in both worlds although he talks only in one — and, of course, by the peculiar fact that all the people in the through-the-wall world (mothers, fathers, neighbors, and friends) have black buttons for eyes.

#page# If that sounds creepy on paper, trust me, you have no idea. Coraline’s director, Henry Selick, is the man responsible for bringing Roald Dahl’s phantasmagoric James and the Giant Peach and Tim Burton’s ghoulish The Nightmare Before Christmas to glorious stop-motion life, so he knows how to put on a creepshow. Indeed, the movie’s zeal for the grotesque is so comprehensive that it’s sometimes hard to tell what’s supposed be “normal” and what’s supposed to be unsettling — for the audience, and, more important, for the questing Coraline, as she explores the alternative reality that her desire for parental attention seems to have summoned up.

Still, by the time the heroine’s “other mother” starts chowing down on a box filled with squirming beetles, it’s clear that All Is Not Right in Coraline’s newfound pleasure-dome. Various hair-raising developments ensue as she tries to make her escape, and the stereoscopic 3-D gets an impressive workout. (If you can see the film at a theater that issues 3-D glasses, you absolutely should.) The obvious pleasure the film takes in world-building is matched by the pleasure it takes in the unmaking of the other mother’s moon-drenched paradise: It fades like a computer-generated illusion and rots like a bad apple simultaneously, even as the being responsible for its existence is gradually revealed as a dreadful combination of Cruella de Vil, J. R. R. Tolkien’s dread she-spider Shelob, and the Terminator. (Like I said, the banshee had nothing on this.)

In addition to being scary, the story is busy. Gaiman’s novel was spare but somewhat overplotted even so, with a few too many magical talismans and people to be rescued, and the film (as films are wont to do) has ladled on extra developments and characters, sometimes but not always to good effect. Coraline has all the psychological richness of a great fairy tale, but its plot could have used some refinement and rejiggering.

But then, that’s how great fairy tales emerge — not all at once and fully formed, but gradually, through multiple iterations, until somebody gets them exactly right. (I’m sure the first and second tellings of Snow White and Cinderella weren’t quite perfect either.) And as far as modern motion-picture forays into faerie go, this one is highly recommended. Just think twice before you bring the kids.

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