Coraline, which opens this Friday (February 6), is the kind of movie critics love to praise. They’ll use words like “quirky” and “whimsical”… they’ll congratulate it on being a kids’ movie that dares to be “dark”… they’ll laud it for using old-fashioned stop-motion animation. And in their rush to appear smart or hip or highbrow or whatever they feel their praise makes them, they’ll overlook one small thing…
Coraline is underwhelming on almost all fronts: visually, narratively, emotionally. Perhaps most importantly—it’s just not that much FUN.
In case you’re unfamiliar, Coraline is famed stop-motion director Henry Selick’s (The Nightmare Before Christmas, Monkeybone) movie adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s novel (props to HalibetLector for catching my error-- it's not a graphic novel, as I'd originally said-- sorry!)… and the world’s first full-length 3D stop-motion animated feature.
The story follows Coraline Jones (voiced by Dakota Fanning), an 11-year-old girl who has just moved with her parents to an old Victorian country house—known as the “Pink Palace”—in remote Oregon. Unfortunately, Mr. and Mrs. Jones (Teri Hatcher and John Hodgman) are busy writing a book on botany and have little time or energy for their curious daughter, so Coraline takes it upon herself to explore her new world. One day, while out dowsing for water, Coraline runs into Wybie (Robert Bailey, Jr.), an odd, slightly misshapen neighbor boy who lives with his grandmother (who, as a girl, lived in the Pink Palace). Wybie and Coraline strike up a friendship, and Wybie gives Coraline a mysterious doll that he stole from his grandmother’s house… and happens to bear an uncanny resemblance to Coraline herself!
As soon as the doll, “Little Me,” enters the Pink Palace, strange things begin to happen. Although Coraline never catches it in action, the doll seems to move by itself… and soon leads her to a secret crawlspace hidden in the walls, a passage to an alternate reality.
At first, this alternate universe looks almost exactly like Coraline’s actual reality. Her house looks the same, her garden looks the same… she even meets “Other Mother” and “Other Father,” who look just like her real parents (except for one unnerving difference—everyone in the new universe has buttons in place of their eyes). But Coraline soon discovers the supernatural wonders of this other world. Other Mother and Other Father are much more affectionate and loving than her real parents; they shower Coraline with attention, make her amazingly delicious meals, play games with her, and let her play in their magical garden of glowing plants, giant mechanical insects, and tickling flowers.
Over the next few days, Coraline is drawn back repeatedly to her alternate universe, which is a welcome respite from her drab, lonely existence at home. Where her real parents ignore and dismiss her, her Other Parents adore and celebrate her. Where her real world consists of subdued browns, grays, and dull blues, the Other World is vibrant and colorful.
Of course, not all is as it seems in Coraline’s other reality. As she soon discovers, Other Mother is actually an evil, spider-like monster who has simply created this fantastical world in order to trap Coraline… just as she’s trapped several earlier inhabitants of the Pink Palace (including Wybie’s great-aunt), keeping their ghosts locked in limbo. And when Other Mother kidnaps Coraline’s parents, Coraline sets out to rescue them… and destroy Other Mother forever.
Unfortunately, while Coraline has all the makings of an adorable Alice-in-Wonderland-esque adventure, it falls short on almost every level. It’s not a “bad” movie, at all… it’s just a continual disappointment.
First of all: the animation. While I know critics will gush about something that’s actually “animated,” using old-school techniques and not CGI, in a world where we’ve already loved The Nightmare Before Christmas and Corpse Bride, Coraline offers almost nothing new.
Secondly, its “3D-ness” is totally wasted. Much of the film, especially the portions in the normal world, have no visual elements that would make them interesting in 3-D… and when the movie DOES have segments that could look great in 3D, it fails to use it! Sure… these segments—like the madcap routines in the house of Mr. Bobinsky, an old circus acrobat, or Coraline’s final battle against Other Mother—have a bit extra depth, but depth isn’t what makes 3D fun… it’s seeing things pop off the screen, explode toward the audience, surround us and suck us into the world of the film. There are numerous times when Selick could’ve used his three dimensions to shatter that fourth wall, and he almost always chooses not to. In other words, Selick’s three dimensions remain as distant and separate from us as any regular movie.
Looking at Coraline from a screenwriting perspective, it has three weaknesses that keep it from being a truly satisfying emotional experience…
1) WHO THE HELL IS CORALINE? We never truly get to know the main character… what she wants, what she loves, what she fears, what she longs for, how she sees the world. The press materials describe her as “feisty, curious, and adventurous beyond her years,” but I’m not sure this is ever illustrated in the movie. I mean, Coraline does things… she delivers mail to her neighbors, dowses for water, explores her house… but it’s all done with a certain resigned sense of boredom. She seems to be doing things not because she lusts for life or is excited by people and things she discovers, but because her parents won’t have anything to do with her.
Similarly, we know almost nothing of Coraline’s old life. She keeps a photo of her old friends at her bedside, but we know little about those relationships. What did she and her old friends do together? Why are these friends so important? Why does she miss them? (Obviously, we all miss our old friends when we move, but HOW does Coraline miss her friends? Why these kids more than anyone else? What made them so special?) How did Coraline's old life fulfill her in ways this new life doesn’t? What parts of Coraline are now dying or missing? How would her life be different—both better and worse—if she were back in Michigan?
Coraline is ultimately a paper-thin character… and in a movie which—like The Wizard of Oz—is about an adventure that takes place mostly in her own imagination and psychology—there are few things more important than our understanding clearly who this main character is. She doesn’t need to be “complex,” per se, but she does need to be full-bodied and easily understandable… yet Coraline never pops.
2) CORALINE IS RARELY PROACTIVE. This stems directly from the first point. Because we—and, I think, the storytellers—never have a solid grasp of whom Coraline is at her core, she never has a single, driving WANT that forces her to take action. Thus, she’s RE-active for most of the story, simply responding to events and people around her. This doesn’t mean she doesn’t do anything; but it does mean she doesn’t drive the story. Rather, she bounces through it, propelled by other
forces, and simply watches and wonders at things going around her.
Had Gaiman and Selick given Coraline a want—say, Coraline WANTS to go home to her Michigan life, or Coraline WANTS to make Wybie come play with her, or Coraline WANTS to convince her parents to let her help with their botany book—Coraline would have been forced to take actions that would drive the story, and all these incidents and side-roads would feel like obstacles or stepping stones on a forward-moving narrative path.
Unfortunately, even when scenes and characters are interesting—like the Other World’s magical garden, Mr. Bobinsky’s bizarre circus apartment, or the neighboring Vaudeville divas (Miss Spink and Miss Forcible)—they feel like uninspired tangents, diversions that are stalling any real story momentum.
I’m guessing, if Neil Gaiman or Henry Selick were here, they’d say that Coraline wants something like “validation from her parents,” or “a sense of belonging,” or “to explore her world,” or “acceptance.” And all of these are fine “emotional” wants—I think it’s necessary to have “emotional” wants… but it’s just as important—and maybe more important—to have TANGIBLE wants that can be physically accomplished.
(In Almost Famous, for example, William Miller wants to be considered and taken seriously as an adult [this is his emotional want]… but he has a physical want that is simple and tangible: TO PUBLISH AN ARTICLE IN ROLLING STONE magazine. If he can do this, he believes, he will be accepted and viewed as an adult. Thus, everything that happens is either a help or a hindrance to both his emotional and his “tangible” journey.)
(Also, to be fair-- Coraline does finally get a "want" late in the movie, when she must return to the Other World to rescue her trapped parents. This is the first time she genuinely takes action to achieve a goal... and the last third of the movie, once Coraline has this mission, feels like a much more solid, controlled story. It's also fun to watch the film's many disparate elements, like Coraline's oddball neighbors, come together in some creative ways during this final battle. Unfortunately, the film's sudden new sense of direction comes a bit too late to make up for its meandering first two thirds.)
3) CORALINE LACKS A SATISFYING ARC. At the end of the movie, after Coraline saves her parents from Other Mother’s evil alternate reality, Coraline realizes to appreciate what she has (or, as the movie's billboards all over town say: “Be careful what you wish for”). And sure—this is, in theory, a decent arc for her character. Here’s the only problem…
SHE DOESN’T SEEM TO SEE HER WORLD ANY DIFFERENTLY!
Coraline's parents still dismiss her. The “real” world is still nothing but grays and browns.
So Coraline hasn’t learned to see things in a new way, she’s just learned to appreciate the disappointing humdrum of her own reality! In other words, the movie seems to say, “the real world may suck, but at least it’s better than the dangerous, shitty OTHER world!”
…Which, again—in theory, is a definite character arc… it’s just not a very FUN character arc. (Which I’m sure will prompt critics to praise the movie’s subtlety, its adult themes, etc. But the truth is: celebrating boredom is still… at least for me… boring.)
The most disappointing thing about Coraline is that it could’ve been so much better than it is. I’m a fan of both Neil Gaiman and Henry Selick… and with those two imaginations working together, the movie should be transcendent. It’s not. It is tragically—like Coraline’s world itself—just less than ordinary.