Review: Coraline (2009)

Here’s my one-line review of Coraline: The book was better.

Ok, no, I wouldn’t really do that to you. And let me be clear: I am not a Neil Gaiman fanatic. I have read several of his books, and I think they’re sometimes pretty good, and sometimes not that great at all. Coraline, though, is one of the good ones, and after I read the book, I was pretty interested to see the film version. It’s got a good story, a great character, excellent voice acting, and the director of one of my most favorite movies. So yeah, good stuff.

Coraline Jones (Dakota Fanning) has just moved (in the movie, from Michigan to Oregon?) into a new apartment with her present-but-absent parents, Mel (Teri Hatcher) and Charlie (John Hodgman). She finds a mysterious door in the living room, and a new “friend,” Wybie (Robert Bailey, Jr.) provides some exposition with the presentation of a doll he found in his grandmother’s attic that looks exactly like Coraline, and the injunction that his grandmother (who owns the apartments) doesn’t usually rent to families with children, because “it’s dangerous”. Soon enough, Coraline discovers that the strange door leads to another apartment like hers only better, complete with a perfect “Other Mother” and father, and the same strange neighbors (voiced by Dawn French, Jennifer Saunders, and Ian McShane). Before long, Coraline realizes that she is caught in an evil trap, and she must outsmart the evil Other Mother, with the help of a strange Cat (Keith David) in order to save herself and her parents.

Let me tell you: this movie is creepy!! The stop-motion animation is fantastic, and the vision of the director certainly seems to match up to Gaiman’s. An excellent score by Bruno Coulais helps add to the ambiance. While I found some of the changes from the book (the addition of Wybie as a human friend for Coraline?) rather unnecessary, they didn’t detract from the overall story. It’s actually a really interesting story in a lot of ways … it has parallels to the usual child-as-hero tropes, but some marked differences. For instance, Coraline is not an orphan in the way child heroes often are. Her parents are both present and accounted for, although they are too wrapped up in their work to notice their unhappy child. That’s what makes the Other Mother’s trap so effective: all that Coraline really wants is for her parents to take a more active role in her life. What she has to learn is that while they’re not perfect, they’re her parents, and she wouldn’t really trade them. The character of Coraline is pretty usual: curious, spunky, quick on her feet, but I appreciate the more modern aspects of her personality … she’s very much an individual, but she’s really a normal kid who would prefer pizza to whatever weird vegetable her folks are serving up.

The voice cast is first rate. Dakota Fanning is one of the best young actors working, and she is ably supported by the adults present, although Teri Hatcher would perhaps not have been my first choice to star as the villain. French & Saunders and McShane were maybe a little under-used, but their characters are secondary, so that was really as it should be. It’s all about the visual, though, and that’s where Coraline shines. No detail has been overlooked, from the adorable “jumping mice” to the fabulous garden of the Other world. I’m glad they chose to bring the book to life in animation, because I don’t believe anything live-action with CGI effects would truly be able to capture the beautiful but frightening trap created by the Other Mother.

Coraline was really fun to watch, and I’d certainly recommend it; if not for children of all ages, at least for older ones. It’s definitely rather creepy, so younger children might be frightened. It’s rated PG for a reason. All in all, though, Gaiman’s excellent heroine is represented well on-screen, and her story is engaging and poignant … but the book was still better.


2 responses to “Review: Coraline (2009)

  1. Nice review!!

    I enjoyed this film. I watched it with my girls and I agree with you it is very, very creepy. I still can’t believe it is stop gap photography. Beautiful.

    Shame my girls are too scared for a rewatch.

    Thanks for posting it

  2. I had no idea this was based on a book. I still haven’t seen this but it came highly recommended from my friend Vince. I’ll give this a shot one of these days.

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