Coraline tells the story of 11-year-old Coraline Jones (Dakota Fanning), who moves into a new apartment in a creepy old Victorian mansion. Coraline’s parents (Teri Hatcher and John Hodgman) are workaholics who act like caring for Coraline is a burden, hence she is often left to her own devices. In short order she meets a weird local lad called Wyborne (Robert Bailey Jr.) who hangs out with a mangy cat (Keith David). Wyborne gives her a strange old doll with buttons for eyes that resembles her. That night she dreams that a sealed-up door in the living room leads to another world – where lives her “Other Mother” (also Hatcher) and “Other Father,” dream parents who dote on her every whim and ply her with a magical garden and delicious food. But the real difference is, the Other parents have buttons for eyes. Coraline finds herself enchanted by this alternate reality and returns through the portal many times. She is thrilled to be offered the chance to remain in this world – until, thanks to the cat and a morbidly altered version of Wyborne, she realizes that things on the other side may be just a little too good to be true, and staying forever comes at a terrible price.
Based on a 2002 novella by award-winning fantasy/horror writer Neil Gaiman (who created one of my all-time favorite comic book series, The Sandman), Coraline leans a little more toward the horror end of the fantasy spectrum. For example, I couldn’t help but wonder if little girls would be shocked by the opening imagery of a doll being sliced open and gutted, then re-sewn with a new face. I can picture this movie stoking fears about parental abandonment or a mother suddenly transforming into a monster. On the other hand, Coraline herself is shown to be brave and resourceful, intelligent and determined –a great role model for kids — especially little girls. And while Coraline’s change of heart toward her own parents comes somewhat suddenly, it is not entirely unexpected. Her real parents love her; they just tend to take her for granted. The story was adapted by animator Henry Selick, best known for his collaborations with Tim Burton, the ultra-classic The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993) and James and the Giant Peach (1996), and I must confess that I was shocked to find of the some animation quite dodgy. In many places the movement seemed to slow down and…well, “look fake.” Perhaps this was a flaw in the disc I watched, but nonetheless, it was jarring. I also thought the narrative pacing lagged in places, and I actually checked the time more than one in the saggy middle of the movie.
In the end, Coraline is a wonderfully entertaining fairy tale with an enjoyably creepy undercurrent. It reminded me of The Wizard of Oz, with its “There’s no place like home” message, and there was a fair bit of Alice in Wonderland mixed in. But it was all delivered in a much more creepy vehicle, a children’s story seen through a mirror, darkly.