Tuesday, February 10, 2009
By Jenny Halper
Spare Change News
Movies have culled drama from ungrateful daughters and out-of-it mothers for as long as they've probed the divide between fantasy and reality. So if the premise of Neil Gaiman's Coraline isn't terribly new - it's about as different from The Wizard of Oz and Pans Labyrinth as the name Coraline is from Caroline – the film is nonetheless a visually inventive and wonderfully quirky adventure that manages to entertain while imparting a pretty dark message: be careful what you wish for, what looks better isn't always, and dreams can turn into nightmares.
I'm probably being too philosophical. This is, after all, a kids' movie – or a movie that brings back vivid memories of being a kid, like waking up to boring reality after a great dream, and being forced to eat food you'd rather scrub the floor with. The heroine, voiced with pluck by Dakota Fanning, has moved with her parents to an apartment building that looks like a pink version of something from a Tim Burton movie, and usually doesn't house families with kids. Not that her parents seem to want kids: mom (Teri Hatcher) types on a computer and snaps at her, dad (John Hodgeman) types on a computer and ignores her, they buy her drab school uniforms and send her off to play with the too-chatty boy next door, who is named Whyborn ("why, were you born?" Coraline groans). Whyborn gives her a doll that looks just like her, except it has buttons where its eyes should be.
Coraline, which was written by Gaiman (from his children's book of the same name) and directed by the inventive Henry Selick, benefits from amazing animation and detailed puppetry –the characters are remarkably expressive. The story is smartly told from Coraline's honest, gutsy, sometimes bratty perspective. She really is an explorer on a quest for a water hole, the grotesque actresses downstairs really are the size of cruise ships, her parents really are just that awful - until she wants something, and then they're not.
After a few amusing encounters with her new neighbors, Coraline finds a small door that, at night, opens to tunnel that leads to a house that looks just like her house, only brighter. Her dad looks like her dad, only he composes songs about her. Her mom looks just like her mom, only she cooks Coraline's favorite foods and plants exquisite gardens and sews Whyborn's mouth shut. A gravy train rolls down the dinner table, literally. The actresses, now thin, fling her around a trapeze. It's sort of like sorority rush, except everyone has buttons instead of eyes and after a few treats Coraline's newfound, “better” mother wants to sew buttons over Coraline’s eyes, too.
Disregard the metaphors you could make with this. Coraline has a dilemma, but she’s smart enough to know that lots of cake and flying actresses aren’t enough of a trade when her eyesight is concerned (or, as we’ll later find out, her soul). Without giving away the final act of the film – a quest that could be too scary for very young children – I will say that while the premise of the film isn’t new, the execution is surprisingly original, and parents will be as entertained as their offspring – who hopefully won’t be asking for new clothes or better food anytime soon.