Coraline

Visuals 10, Story 1
★★★★
☆☆☆
Released: 
2009
Director: 
Henry Selick
Starring: 
Dakota Fanning, Teri Hatcher, Jennifer Saunders, Dawn French, Keith David
The Setup: 
Girl finds portal to another world where she has perfect parents… but there’s a price.
Discussion: 

I was not that interested in this until it got great reviews that discussed how amazing the visuals were, especially in 3-D, and praised the story, although without going into many details about it. Turns out that’s because there’s not that many details to go into.

We open with a credit sequence that shows a doll flying into a house from space, where it is caught by these skeletal hands made of needles that cut off its features, unstuff it, then apply features that make it look like we know Coraline will, and dress it like her, then send it back off into space.

We then join the real Coraline in a big pink house in Oregon, where she has recently moved with her mother and father. Her mother and father are both absorbed with writing on their laptops, trying to finish a catalog they are apparently freelancing as writers on, and fairly dismissively tell Coraline to get out of their faces. She goes out looking for an old well, and once she finds it, also meets Wybie, whose full name, we learn, means Why Was I Born? He lives nearby with his grandmother, the landlord of Coraline’s house. We find out that grandma usually rents the house to families with no children. Why she then rented to Coraline’s parents? Because then we couldn’t have this story, silly!

So soon Wybie brings over a doll he supposedly found in the attic, that looks exactly like Coraline. It’s the one from the credit sequence. Coraline places it next to her bed when she sleeps at night. When she falls asleep, mice lead her to a small door in the wall that leads to a parallel house, where there are parallel parents, only with buttons instead of eyes. These parents are nice and pay attention to her, serve her food that she likes, and are all attentive and send her lovingly to bed. When she wakes, she is back in her own house.

We soon meet this acrobat who lives upstairs and apparently runs a circus of jumping mice. We also meet these two former showgirls who live downstairs, now obese and over made-up, with three terriers they dote over. We also find out that Wybie’s grandmother had a twin sister that disappeared way back when.

SPOILERS > > >
Soon Coraline is able to enter the other house during the day, while she’s awake. She goes upstairs and sees the acrobat’s jumping mouse circus—great looking, but thematically related to nothing, then goes downstairs and sees the two women perform their act, again pretty, but again, thematically orphan. Then her nice, attentive new parents tell her that she can stay with them forever, but she’ll have to give up her eyes and have buttons sewn there. Coraline refuses, finds that she can’t return to her real house as easily as she thought, and is starting to get creeped out.

Soon Coraline finds these other kid ghosts locked in a room, former victims of the mother spirit, who has now suddenly transformed into an insect-like incarnation with the needles for hands, and is keeping the parallel father quiet lest he spill secrets to Coraline. Then Coraline returns to the real world to find that her real parents are gone, but trapped behind a mirror/in a snow globe. Which is it? I kind of think it’s both. So Coraline decides that she needs to save her real parents and also save the souls of the three kids while she’s at it.

For this she receives a magic ring from the two sisters downstairs, who somehow suddenly have something to do with the story of the parallel worlds. Then she has to go around collecting the eyes of the three kids, which appear to her when she looks through her magic decoder ring. She has to battle various plants and such to get these eyes, and once she does, the immediate surroundings turn all gray. What does THAT mean? I guess it just looks cool. Then Coraline has to do battle with the mother, who suddenly and senselessly turns the entire house into a huge spiderweb [looks great, though]. Coraline gets back and locks the door, and suddenly her parents are back. And now suddenly they’ve got time for her! And they bought her the gloves she wanted! And they’re going to take her out to dinner! Not because anything has been resolved story-wise, but just because their assignment is now finished. So you think it’s going to end.

But no! Coraline decides that she has to get rid of the key, so she goes to the old well—you know the one, the one with no real relation to the story—but the mother’s HAND is still around, and tries to get it! Then Wybie appears out of nowhere and saves Coraline! Then the family has a big picnic, and they invite Wybie’s grandmother… who turns out to be black. What’s THAT about? We’ll never find out. Finally it ends.
< < < SPOILERS END

This is the second time in a few months [the first was after the remake of The Day the Earth Stood Still] where I’ve walked out saying “THIS is the result of decades of declining reading skills in American schools,” because while the visuals are amazing, the story is a total mess. Usually in fantasy movies—and it’s this way because it’s successful—the fantasy world is governed by a larger sense or relation to the real world wherein everything follows an internal logic. Look at The Wizard of Oz, which has resonance precisely because everything in the fantasy world has a parallel in the real world. Even The City of Lost Children was watertight in its internal logic. Here—who is the acrobat upstairs? Who are the two women downstairs? Just strangers who happen to live there, nothing more than that. So then why do the women have an important key to the central mystery? Because someone had to, right? Most of all—who is the witch who controls the entire property? She’s just no one—unless Coraline really thinks THAT little of her mother. She’s just some witch that happens to rule over this property, straight out of nowhere. And what does the well have to do with anything? Why was it so carefully covered-over if it’s just a well? What do all the insect and spider references at the end have to do with? What’s with Wybie’s grandmother, and the little surprise we find out about her at the end? [Which, incidentally, makes it somewhat more interesting that Wybie’s name sounds so much like “Whitey.”] But—does that have any larger meaning or resonance? Why introduce this right at the very end? It literally seems as though the story were made up as they went along, throwing in whatever might seem cool in the moment, regardless of whether it worked within the larger context. But after a certain point, why stop? Why not introduce the Titanic? Or the Underground Railroad? What about Ricky Martin? Why doesn’t Ricky Martin live somewhere nearby? It would fit into the story as well as anything else here.

Nevertheless, it looks great, and is worth seeing just for that. Especially in 3-D, which is used well without the usual schtick of poking things into the audience’s face. It’s just a shame they couldn’t have, you know, taken a few more English Lit classes growing up. I hear that they did change certain elements of the Neil Gaiman novel for this story, so maybe the novel is a model of clarity. On the other hand, I also hear that Coraline is one of his narratively “tighter” works. Well, I gotta hand it to the guy if he’s achieving so much success for tossing out shoddy afterthoughts like THIS. Too bad audiences have so little sense of how to construct a story they don’t realize how cruddy this is.

Should you watch it: 

Yes, in 3-D, for the visuals. Any viewing enhancements you might choose to enjoy before viewing would be very welcome, as this thing is quite trippy.