As an inveterate Neil Gaiman (Sandman, American Gods, Stardust) fan, as well as an animation nerd who’s consistently impressed with Henry Selick’s (The Nightmare Before Christmas, James and the Giant Peach) work, this one was pretty much a shoe-in for me. Based on Gaiman’s book of the same title, Selick’s stop-motion animated movie adaptation was even more enjoyable than I was expecting it to be, in no small part due to the fact that it had what so few movies aimed at kids have anymore: spookiness. Gaiman’s good at spooky, he’s made his career on it, and I was so grateful and impressed that Selick put so much effort into preserving that aspect of it, because it really made the story work. One would think, given that the basic plot revolves around a girl finding another house just like hers filled with people just like the ones she knows only with buttons for eyes, who want to put buttons in her eyes and keep her there, that spookiness would be a given, but I learned a while ago to stop trusting Hollywood adaptations, especially ones aimed at children. But Selick kept the spooky and even somewhat scary elements intact, and the result was this delicious cocktail of creative, atmospheric visuals and quirky, engaging story. It reminds me far more of the old-fashioned fairy tales from my childhood like Baba Yaga and Vasilisa the Brave, where there were rules to magic, the peril to children was real, and they had to be clever and trick the being that was menacing them.
I also like that Coraline isn’t your typical young leading lady—she’s got some snark to her, and deliberately comes off as being abrasive at times. To me, it’s understandable, since she’s new in town, just moved, and her parents are both too busy to spend much time with her. I loved the small moment where she gets to say hello to the two friends she left behind, since it really demonstrated that she wasn’t always so acidic, she was just a grumpy pre-teen in a stressful situation. I can remember being just like that, so I’m maybe more sympathetic to her than someone else might be. But I do appreciate a female heroine who has faults and isn’t all sweetness and light and is allowed to be slightly grating at times. And her parents are allowed to be flawed as well, particularly her mother. The design of them both demonstrates how similar these two are, physically and in terms of personality. Her father is less sarcastic and frustrated, but he is just as overworked, and a bit less effective at parenting. But I never got the impression that they were bad parents, per se, nor that they didn’t care about her. They were simply under pressure and didn’t have time to entertain their daughter as much as she would have liked.
While all this is understandable to a third party viewing from the outside, it’s really no wonder why Coraline is so dazzled by the world her ‘other’ mother has created for her. Her other parents not only have time for her, but they’re more pleasant to be around in general, and everything they do is designed to delight her in some way. Her eccentric neighbors are talented and entertaining in spectacular ways, and the entire world was tailor made specifically for Coraline. Like home, only better. Of course, like all magical gifts, it’s too good to be true, and the price for living in this place is a pair of shiny buttons where her eyes should be. Coraline’s a sensible girl, and there’s no question about what her answer to that is, but the Other Mother’s no pushover either, and she doesn’t like being told no.
I feel I should say here how impressed I am with Terri Hatcher’s performance as Coraline’s mother and other mother. She basically plays three roles in the film, and she does it very, very well. They’re all distinct, but not so different that it’s jarring—they are sort of the same person, in a sense. Coraline’s real mother is tired, frustrated, and harried, but doing the best she can, while the other mother at first is sweet, doting, and warm while still being a little distant. Once her real nature comes out, she is cold, aloof, and unsettling. It’s a fantastic performance, and I love that instead of getting loud and shrill when Other Mother gets angry, she gets calm and quiet. It’s so effective that way.
Another aspect I liked that I believe Roger Ebert pointed out in his review of the film, is that all the women in the film seem to have some witch-like qualities. There is something about all of them that is just slightly uncanny, often in subtle ways, but it’s still there. Mr. B, Coraline’s upstairs neighbor also has some uncanny traits, since he seems to have information about Coraline’s adventure that he shouldn’t know, which he seems to have gotten from his imaginary jumping mice. But Coraline, her mother, and the two downstairs neighbors, Miss Spink and Miss Forcible, and of course the Other Mother all have moments of varying witchiness. It’s just another layer of detail that made this movie so delightful and engrossing.
As with any adaptation, there were changes made from Gaiman’s original book, but when switching mediums, it’s necessary, and the changes made to this didn’t hamper the story in any real way for me. They’re slightly different beasts, but both very much worth spending time with. They’re imaginative, charming, spooky, clever, and the products of two very talented people, and I was delighted for hours after I was done with both of them.