Thursday, 20 September 2012

Coraline (2009)

Dir. Henry Selick
Starring: Dakota Fanning, Teri Hatcher, Jennifer Saunders, Dawn French 

In The Goonies and Stand By Me our heroes have one last adventure before their life changes forever. For Coraline Jones (Dakota Fanning), however, her life has already changed. She has been separated from her friends back home in Pontiac, Michigan, after her family has relocated to dank, damp and dreary Oregon. Their new house is dilapidated. It has silverfish in the bathroom, it is surrounded by a sea of mud, and the inhabitants of the other apartments in the ‘Pink Palace’ are elderly and eccentric, dreaming of past glories. She has to look forward to a dull grey school uniform. Even brightly-coloured striped gloves are off the agenda. The nearest she has to friends are the weird “stalker” Wyborne (Robert Bailey Jr.), a manky cat and a button-eyed doll that resembles Coraline herself. 

And then, during the night, she wakes. Her feet lead her to a small door set into one wall. When discovered that day it was closed off with bricks. By night a strange multicoloured tunnel leads away. And it opens up… back in her house. But this is a strange reflection of her house. Here everything is different as if designed to appeal specifically to her. Everything has been improved. Her room is bright and glowing with friendly toys. Her friends speak to her from their photograph. Wybie is silent. He odd neighbours have achieved their ambitions: Misses Spink and Forcible (Jennifer Saunders and Dawn French) are beautiful acrobats performing to a theatre of Scots terriers and Mr Bobinsky (Ian McShane) has trained his performing “jumping mice” to be truly “amazink”. Her father (John Hodgman) is fun, zanily-dressed and has created a magical garden modelled on Coraline’s own face. Her mother (Teri Hatcher) is loving and has become an amazing cook. Except that she is not Coraline’s mother. She is her “Other Mother”. Everyone in this dream world has buttons for eyes, like the doll Coraline was given earlier. And as her visits continue Coraline is presented with a choice. She can stay in this dream world forever. All that is required is that she lets her Other Mother replace her eyes with buttons…

And it turns out that she might not actually have a choice at all. The Other Mother is quite determined that Coraline stay and let her love her. She even kidnaps her real parents. Coraline must hence take on “the Beldam” to free herself and her parents. 

Coraline is bored. She just wants some attention from her parents. When she finally gets it the sun comes out and everyone has a good time. But the Other Mother wants more than attention. She wants love. This is what she feeds upon. Letting her replace a child’s eyes with buttons is the ultimate form of love and trust. And it has ended so badly for other children previously. They were lured in by attention and fun and “treasures and treats” and seeing their fondest dreams live. Now they are trapped ghosts: Coraline has to free them, too, by finding their eyes. But if the Other Mother cannot be given the love she is perfectly willing to take it. Yet even then she can be side-tracked with games and challenges.  

Coraline is based upon a Neil Gaiman novel, but it is most stylistically related to A Nightmare Before Christmas – an earlier work directed by Henry Selick (yes, I thought Nightmare was directed by Tim Burton too. It turns out that he just produced and co-wrote it). Like the earlier film Coraline is stop-motion animation. And it looks fabulous. The real world is wonderfully detailed, and the Other World is just visually stunning, exploding with colour and texture and magic. Sadly it came out in the same year as the luscious – and highly moving – Up, robbing it of awards. While Coraline is moving (seeing Coraline come to appreciate her parents and vice-versa) it dis not have quite the same emotional impact. It is, however, much creepier. Much, much creepier. Bruno Coulais’s music, featuring a childrens’ choir singing in a made-up-language, is spine-tingling from the get-go. The opening scene of a doll being, essentially, tortured and eviscerated by needle-like fingers before being put back together again is quite squirm-inducing. As the Other Mother gets more possessive and demanding, her blank black button eyes gleaming insectoidally, the peril cranks up. “How dare you disobey your mother?” indeed. It gave my girlfriend the creeps, so I’m not sure that this is quite a kid’s movie, even if it is an animated adventure about an 11-year old girl. 
At £5.50 for a box of popcorn at the Odeon
it was no wonder they tried to smuggle in their own
But then, dammit, shouldn't a good fairy story be scary? Little Red Riding Hood's Grandma gets eaten by a wolf. Goldilocks is almost eaten by bears. Hansel and Gretel are to be cooked by a witch. All good stories are dark and sinister (and usually involve someone or other getting et). The Wicked Stepmother is a fairy story staple; little girls have been travelling into strange and magical worlds (where they are helped by talking cats) since Alice. What Coraline does is bring back the gothic and the threat to childrens' bedtime stories. And hurrah for that!

What have I learnt about Oregon?
Again we have the hills covered with pine-trees. Again we have the rain, the fog and the mud. It seems that there is a bit of a consistent theme with depictions of Oregon. The Oregon presented in the film is washed out and grey with damp bathrooms and banana slugs. It seems quite conformist with some ways: Coraline has to wear a grey uniform for school. 

Yet there is eccentricity too. The town has a Shakespeare festival, and its streets have folk in medieval garb spouting rhyme. The house into which the Joneses move has other tenants, including two elderly Shakespearean actresses (though posters for shows such as King Leer and Julius Sees-Her suggest that in their heyday they had a bit of a burlesque twist on the Bard) and an elderly Russian acrobat and circus performer. The house itself is a grand Victorian mansion made of wood and painted pink, now sub-divided into separate apartments. 

Can we go there?
This version of Coraline is animated. Yet it was, in fact, filmed in Oregon. The sets were created in a warehouse in Hillsboro, west of Portland. But the film was set in the very southernmost part of the state, not far from the Californian border, in Ashland. Ashland is, indeed, home to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. 

Overall Rating: 3/5

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