Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Film Review--Coraline

directed by Henry Selick
written by Henry Selick
based on the novella by Neil Gaiman
starring the voices of Dakota Fanning, Teri Hatcher, Jennifer Saunders, Dawn French, Keith David, John Hodgman, Robert Bailey Jr., Ian McShane

Based on the short book of the same name by Neil Gaiman, this stop-action animated fantasy film creates an exquisitely crafted world of immense beauty that is both beguiling and disturbing.

A young girl named Coraline Jones (Fanning) has moved into a new home with her parents and finds herself emotionally abandoned and neglected. She takes to exploring the house and discovers a hidden door that has been wallpapered in. When she opens it she discovers it has been bricked over. That evening she awakens and sees a mouse scurrying out of the room. She follows it to the door and apprehends that it leads through a tunnel to a strange new world that resembles her old house only everything is brighter, more vibrant and alive. She meets a woman who closely resembles her own mother except she’s way more attentive and fun plus she’s got buttons for eyes. This woman claims to be her “Other Mother” (Hatcher) and that she and her husband (Hodgman) have been waiting for her. Coraline soon realizes that she has entered a world of great times and a non-stop barrage of exciting things to do. Her old world is bland and tiresome in comparison and she considers never going back.

The film possesses a tremendous scope. The atmosphere is expansive and there is a genuine sense of openness throughout the film. The “Other” parents exist in a world that epitomizes convenience and infinite creative possibilities. It promises Coraline a life filled with an endless banquet of surprises and everything she could possibly ever desire. It’s alluring in a most relentless sort of way and she slowly realizes that there is much more beneath the surface that might not have her best interests in mind. She meets a stray cat (David) who is just like the cat who stalks her old home only this one can speak. He warns her about her “Other Mother”. Coraline heeds his advice and with the help of a stone with a hole in it she has received from her neighbor Miss Spink (Saunders) she begins to gather up what she needs to escape.

There are so many magical scenes in this film and they are all impossibly bright and colorful. It’s truly an adventure land of tickling, mesmeric sensations that elevate the viewer onto a more profoundly scintillating plane where creativity reigns every aspect of life. Toys are alive, a neighbor named Mr. B. (McShane) conducts a circus featuring mice, and Coraline’s general experience is consumed with frenetic motion and a constant supply of ecstatic moments that are exceedingly seductive. Soon, however, a cold reality settles in and she becomes acutely aware that there is a malefactor afoot. Life in Lorelei isn’t the smorgasbord of delight she originally envisioned it to be.

The idea of a lonely child escaping into a fabulous land populated with every grand and lovely thing they could ever imagine is a terribly charming one. Sure, it’s very common and has been the platform for stories such as “Alice in Wonderland”, “The Wizard of Oz”, and “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory”. The child must take action or avoid various perils in order to escape on the other side with their wits and abilities intact. Coraline is thrust into a world of magic that proves to be too good to be true.

This is a tale that questions easy rearing where children are provided with everything without having to work for it in any capacity whatsoever. Coraline finds herself in just such a situation with “Other” parents who insist on giving her everything she could ever think of without asking anything of her. It’s not an ideal environment for a child as it teaches them to expect that life will always acquiesce with their wishes and that they will always have Mummy and Daddy to fall back on if times get tough. Coraline is a fiercely independant girl and it is this independence that has strained her relationship with their parents. They most likely assume that she can take care of herself so they err in the other direction and pay her no attention whatsoever.

The most obvious difference between the book and the film is the film’s inclusion of a new character named Wybie Lovat (Bailey Jr.) It sets up an entirely different dynamic from the book because it enjoins teamwork with the fantastic narrative. Coraline didn’t need anyone else in the book and the addition of the new character takes something away from her quest to find her parents. There is a small subplot about Wybie’s grandmother’s missing sister which is solved and adds more severity to a key element of the plot. Mostly, the film follows the book closely and there is nothing major to upset oneself over. The tone is a bit looser, it isn’t as dark, and certain visuals move beyond anything the book could possibly be able to describe. Mainly, Miss Forcible’s enormous breasts. They are really massive and one wonders what’s behind the decision to include them. Certainly, kiddies aren’t that into them and they happen to appear on a wrinkled old bat so it’s not like they are sexy or anything.

There is all the fervor and strangeness of the book and the overall energy is maintained through to the end. The book is more terrifying and more ghastly in its depictions of certain scenes. There’s more of a chthonian feel to the book as it slips nicely into a very dark place where there is very real danger. The danger in the film is a bit more cartoonish like the animated version of the Wicked Stepmother in “Cinderella”. Indeed, the “Other Mother” becomes something of a monster and turns her husband into a pumpkin like creature who can hardly speak.

Coraline proves to be a fine sleuth as the locates the necessary items to save herself as well as others she has met during confinement that prove the “Other Mother’s” divine wickedness for all to see. The film does a good job with the “Other Mother” and she’s deliciously primal when she transforms herself into a monster. She’s scary enough and it does seem that she might be capable of eating Coraline and perhaps the cat. She’s tyrannical and driven by an urgency that knows no barriers until of course she is confronted with one who is more clever than she. She is ill prepared to take on Coraline who is determined in her own right to leave the realm and return her life back to what is was before her discovery.

There is something interesting about the symbolism of the tunnel between the two homes. It is a long womb like apparatus which Coraline must crawl through both to reach the magic kingdom and to return back to her dull, listless life. Each mother possesses a womb that is connected to their opposite’s womb and the “Other Mother’s” womb is attempting to destroy her rival’s by any means necessary. The old and dead womb offers no sustenance and no hope for a viable future. It’s decrepit and Coraline is justified in attempting to escape it. Unfortunately the new womb is devouring and needy and intent on possessing and smothering her with mock affection that hinges on a specific betrayal of Coraline’s autonomy, her Self. At one end the future is bleak because it is built on a past that does not recognize Coraline for who she is. Her neighbors always get her name wrong and nobody provides her with the attention she craves. On the other end she gets all the attention but must destroy part of her true self in order to maintain it. She must in fact sell her very soul for material possessions and entertainments that will also fail to provide the proper nourishment she requires. The old world is relentlessly boring but at least she possesses the opportunity to invent herself according to her own designs. Such an option does not exist within the realm of a woman who insists on creating Caroline according to her own specifications.

In a sense one can view this film as anti-Fascist in the sense that Caroline is forced to confront a ritualized life in a specific order that demands absolute submission and punishes severely those who dare to challenge the state. The new formed state in this case promises safety, continuity, and well being. It is an ideal model for the Self to remain fettered to a codified way of living bereft from derelicts or threats from outside the realm. The only rule is subservience and an admission that the state is supreme in all matters and can never be doubted. The only escape is through sabotage and a wholesale destruction of the state and a return to a freer, less ordered existence that nevertheless encourages a more open and less didactic expression of Self-hood. Yet, the perceived pleasures of the State are but mere entertainments to keep the captives mollified and to prevent them from raising their voices in discontent and anger against the order.

Coraline is truly trapped between two worlds that prove ultimately to deny her the type of environment that will best encourage her to create a viable future for herself. She must in fact create a life out of the remnants of each world in order to get what she needs. She prefers in the end to be back in the dusty, emotionally cold world because she has learned to assemble a life out of the scraps she apprehends in the familiar. Objects become projects with which to determine the order of her existence. She is free to create her own Self without being constantly reminded that she is living in a world that denies her own creativity by forcing her to forever acknowledge the work of another who remains an oppressive force.

The performances in this film manage to effectively bring the book alive. Dakota Fanning conveys all of Coraline’s doubts and fears throughout the course of the film. Teri Hatcher brings the bitch-goddess to life and creates a definite separation between the two mothers. Dawn French and Jennifer Saunders, both “Absolutely Fabulous” alums, capture the lunacy of their characters and their essential pretentious bombast. Keith David plays the Cat as slinky and a bit mischievous. He sounds like a jazz man introducing one of his latest compositions.

Overall, this film is proof of what painstaking dedication, in this case over four years, can accomplish if the intent is pure and the narrative solidly constructed. The film is simply gorgeous to look at from start to finish and each character is genuinely brought to life. Coraline Jones is one of the most fascinating young heroines to ever be showcased in a cinematic production. She’s bold, inventive and wholly ingenious plus she possesses a never-ceasing capacity for wonder which informs her perceptions of the world. She’s also observant and smart enough to accept the advice of others who warn her of imminent danger. The film will remain a work of art worth returning to again and again. As long as there is celluloid this film will be analyzed and put before young children who will respond like all children respond to rollicking entertainment that dazzles and shines.

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