October is Halloween movie month! Having been completely deprived of any kind of Halloween experience growing up, I now spend 31 days celebrating with film and TV. I like to shoot for a mix of old and new, horror and comedy, from the slightly spooky to the totally terrifying to the just plain weird. Each day of October I’ll reviewing one of these ventures in the realm of the creepy and supernatural. Some will be high quality cinema and some will require large amounts of alcohol to survive. Stock up on seasonal beer and Fireball-apple jello shots and join me! A warning, though – unless the review is of a very recent release, HERE BE SPOILERS.
Starring: Dakota Fanning and Teri Hatcher
Synopsis: Coraline Jones has moved with her garden-writer parents from her beloved Minnesota to a old house in Oregon that has been divided into apartments. Bored and sad about having left her home and with parents who are stressed out by the move and looming deadlines and who have no time or patience with her, she begins to explore. Coraline finds a passage in the house that leads to a mirror image of her home, but where everything is more interesting and glamorous. There live her Other Mother and Father who have buttons for eyes and want nothing more than to shower her with attention. Back in the real world, Coraline visits the neighbors in the house, two aging theater broads and a Russian circus performer, who warn her about some danger lurking through the door in the house. The neighbor boy, Wybie, who annoys Coraline greatly, finds a doll that looks just like her but with buttons for eyes and gives it to her. Mrs. Spink gives her a “lucky” stone to help her but with what is unclear. Coraline keeps going through the door to the other world, wary but taken with the wonders she finds there, including much improved versions of her neighbors who perform a miraculous show and a real life mouse circus for her and a magical garden that looks like her face. One night the Other Mother tells she can stay with them forever if she just lets her sew buttons over her eyes. Coraline is understandably spooked and runs for home, only to find her parents missing. She confronts the Other Mother about this, who locks her up behind a mirror with the ghosts of several other children she trapped there by taking their souls. Counseled by her cat friend, who lives in both worlds but can only talk in the Other World, she challenges the Other Mother to a game for her freedom and the return of her parents, using the stone she was gifted and her wits to find the ghost children’s souls. The Other Mother is angered by her success and reveals her true, awful, spider like form, trying to trap Coraline again. Coraline escapes and manages to free the ghost children souls, and after one final battle with the Other Mother, traps her in a well and returns home, where her parents are waiting. They throw a garden party for their neighbors and Wybie’s grandmother, whose lost sister was one of the ghost children, and Coraline tells her the tale of what happened.
I think Coraline might be the most beautiful movie I’ve ever seen. I love stop-motion animation to begin with and the attention to detail on this film, is without parallel. The work that goes into a movie like this, from the hand knitting of tiny sweaters to the scope of scenes like the magical, light-up garden, are mind-boggling. With so much done with CGI these days (which is it’s own kind of meticulous craft), I admire anyone who has the nerve to try and make a movie by hand like this, frame by frame, and even more so those who succeed in creating a fantastical and believable world. I also love Neil Gaiman’s work and the book this movie was based on, and I also love creepy, macbre stories for children (probably because I wasn’t allowed to enjoy them when I was an actual child).
The only thing I find frustrating about this movie is one departure from the book that bugs the hell out of me: The addition of Wybie. There’s nothing wrong with the character really, except that he doesn’t need to be there. In the book, Coraline rescues herself and the others quite ably, with a little advice from the cat. But for some reason either the script-writer or the studio decided there needed to be a boy character. He helps Coraline, although she and her wits remain the primary heroes of the story. But it feels like someone went “we need to add a boy or boys won’t watch it”, which is frustrating when as a girl I’ve been watching movies without girls in them for decades. Suck it up, dudes. It’s not so egregious it would have bothered me if I hadn’t read the book, but it bears mentioning all the same.
I could go on for hours about how beautiful every aspect of this movie is, but I’ll try to restrain myself. Instead, let’s talk about Coraline. Her character design is great, with her signature blue hair and dragonfly clip, but it’s her personality that sets her apart. She’s weird and a little bit morbid (and has the cutest Minnesotan accent). She’s a good kid, but mischievous. She’s curious and brave and smart, but she never feels too adult, as precocious children in movies are wont to do. Even though she’s tempted by the life offered by the Other Mother, she never totally lets her guard down in that world – she knows it’s too good to be true and not to trust her senses. Coraline feels neglected by her parents but never really doubts that they love her. She and we are shown that their bad tempers are just a temporary condition brought on by a ton of stress all at once, which is nice to see in a kid’s movie – so often parents are either perfect or awful when in reality they are just people who sometimes have a bad week.
I love that it’s Coraline’s intelligence and perceptiveness that drives the action. The story is whimsical and full of unexpected things, but structured in a time tested way. Three visits to the other world, three wonders, three chances to find the ghost children, three neighbors who help her. A tactic like this can lead to a predictable movie, and while the outcome of Coraline’s defeat of the Beldame is hardly a surprise, the trappings are interesting enough so the movie never becomes boring. For instance, we are not surprised to see the world the Other Mother has created disintegrating as she loses control, but touches like the Other Father turning into a rotting pumpkin man and the actresses into shrieking taffy versions of themselves guarded by an army of vampiric Scottish terriers is not something you see coming. The strength of the movie’s scares rely on the twisting of the transcendently beautiful into the horrifying and making us, and Coraline, long for the plainer beauty of the real world and the love of real people.
Quality: 10 Coraline dolls out of 10. I’d give this rating for the craftmanship alone, but Neil Gaiman’s story is excellent for both children and adults.
Entertainment Value: 10 Scotties out of 10. Adventure, chills, a plucky heroine, a satisfying ending, and a visual feast. What more do you want?