"It's Coraline. Not Caroline. Coraline."Coraline, in Neil Gaiman's Coraline (2002)
I read Neil Gaiman's novella, Coraline, almost 3 years ago in my bedroom during a rainstorm at 5:00 am in the morning. I heard it was a children's horror story which scares adults more than it did the kids so I was only trying to get my buck's worth by picking the creepiest time possible to dive into it. It was, how do you say it? A disappointment?
Now, I'm not saying it's a bad book or anything. It's like every other novel written by Gaiman I've read, and my opinion of each one of them is the same; "Great concept. Lacklustre writing. Cool visuals, though. Wish they'd make a movie out of it." I felt that way about American Gods. I felt that way about Neverwhere. And I most certainly felt that way about Stardust.
Luckily for me, they did make a movie adaptation of Stardust and I enjoyed it immensely. I liked it far more than I liked the book (and I almost never think this way of screen translations of novels, particularly if I have read the books before I watch the movies). So, when I heard that they are making a Coraline film, I got pretty excited about it. And when I read that Dakota Fanning is going to voice the eponymous heroine and that it's going to be a stop motion feature (first time ever in 3-D!) directed by The Henry Selick of The Nightmare Before Christmas fame, I was so mind-blown that pieces of my brain matter could be found in orbit, going splat on the windshields of passing spaceships.
I just watched it this morning, by the way. And I watched it again just a couple of hours ago.
I think it's the best stop motion animated film I've ever watched. Dare I say, it's better than The Nightmare Before Christmas? Why, yes. Wait, I'll say it again in a sec; YES! FUCK YES!
At any rate, it's an awesome movie many times better than Tim Burton's Corpse Bride, which I liked in a mildly interested sort of way, or the frankly banal Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit which won the 2005 Oscar for Best Animated Feature. I'm thinking if W&G could win at the Academy Awards, Coraline should be a shoo-in for the honour. However, it'll still have to contend with Pixar's Up (not to be confused with Russ Meyer's 1976 soft core porno, Up!) which will be debuting very soon.
Alright, without further delay, I shall review Coraline now, spoiler free (or at least till I indicate otherwise). Folks who have read Gaiman's novella have absolutely nothing to worry about at all. You guys already know all the reels and reveals.
Coraline have just moved into the Pink Palace Apartments with her two boring, boring, BORING, and neglectful, work-consumed parents and she is not a happy girl at all. Upstairs lived a Mr. Bobinsky, a big blue Russian acrobat who claimed to be secretly training a jumping mice circus and is evidently two warheads short of a nuclear holocaust. Inhabiting the lower floor is a pair of retired actresses (broadly hinted to have been in the burlesque business) who lived with three yappy Scottish Terriers and more than a dozen other stuffed ones. The only person of her age around is a nerdy African American kid with scoliosis (wasn't in the original story), and even he doesn't pay Coraline much attention. In fact, with the exception of her parents, no one even got her name right.
Then, while exploring her decrepit new home, she discovered a little door hidden behind the wallpaper in an empty room. After pestering her Mom to unlock it, she discovered, to her disappointment, that it had been bricked up.
Later that night, after being awakened by a jumping mice, she followed it to the little door and discovered a glowing passageway which wasn't there before leading to a near-identical version of her apartment. There, she met her Other Mother and Other Father which were identical to her own parents except that they are much more loving, more attentive... and oh, have black, shiny buttons for eyes.
Everything in the Other World seems more interesting and exciting compared to Coraline's own mundane reality, and she loved it there. Need I say that things quickly turned real awry from that point onwards?
This is Alice in Wonderland with a malevolent fae spin - a surrealistic nightmare version of The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe. It's the classic children story of a fantastic journey into another world, only darker and very much scarier.
I shall not mince words. This movie is gorgeous.
The thing I admire most about stop motion animation, aside from the massive amount of expertise, talent and patience required to produce a full-length feature, is the screen presence. When we see Coraline, we can see that she has depth, weight and volume, and it certainly didn't hurt for me to know that when they shot the scenes, there's an actual model of Coraline in teeny tiny clothes on an actual set. With the exception of the sky, the ghost children and a few little other things, everything in the movie is very much real. There's a degree of richness evident in this sort of film that conventional CGI has yet to match. While there are still some wrinkles here and there in the method that they have not ironed out completely, they came very close to perfection with Coraline.
Aside from looking good, the nature of the medium is also very much suited to represent the uncanniness of the Other World and its inhabitants. There are parts which I think were made intentionally slightly more unrealistic and jerkier compared to others to signal to the audience that something is a little off in those scenes.
There was a scene where little swirling paper cutouts of jumping mice emerged through a pinhole in the bricks into Coraline's real apartment at the beginning which I thought was made using CGI because it looked so organic and complicated. A little clip at the end of the end credits showed how it was actually done, and yes, I was wrong. It's all stop motion. Bloody impressive, I must say.
Do not bring any children younger than 10 to watch Coraline. You will give them enough fuel to power nightmares for many months to come. The film achieved - in broad daylight no less - what the book did not. Yes, I'm admitting it. A kiddie movie frightened me.
Wait, I take back what I said about not bringing kids to the movie. Bring them. Traumatise them. It builds character. All those feel good cartoons with zany animal sidekicks are making our kids soft.
Now, I personally divide the horror genre into two broad and highly subjective categories; high horror, and low horror. You know those movies which relies heavily on cheap shocks, gory images, scare chords, body horror and Things Leaping Suddenly at the Audience? Those are strictly low horror to me. They work on an animalistic level depending almost solely on every sentient being's instinct to run away or recoil when surprised by the unexpected.
High horrors, like Coraline, plays on our fear of the unknown and uncanny, and disturbs us by the force of its story alone. It engages us and crawl beneath our skins. It grabs us down inside where it's dark and lonely. And it lingers long after the show ended.
Warning: Spoilers begin here. Do not read on if you don't want to have the story spoilt for you.
Do not even look at the following pictures. Go away, or skip right down to the Last Words.
Take the Other Parents, for example. They would have been exemplary parents if it wasn't for their button eyes. It's that little other-worldly something which simply unsettle all of us when we look at it. Every subsequent time Coraline visits the Other Place, everything changed subtly, becomes slightly more unfamiliar, slightly more wrong. When the Other Father started to lose his shape and his voice started sounding lower like a record played slow, I could feel my insides curling up in horror. I'm not even going into the details of the Other Mother's ghastly final transformation. Teri Hatcher was simply pitch perfect in the role with her soft, chilling voice - reassuring yet alarming all at once. I also think it's ironic that she's playing a literal desperate housewife in this film.
Also, I'm pretty sure that I will be dreaming about several of the other nightmarish elements in this movie for the next couple of nights at least. The scariest one has to be the part where the Other Mother banging on the door on the Other's Place's end of the tunnel screaming, "DON'T LEAVE ME!!! DON'T LEAVE ME!!! I'LL DIE WITHOUT YOUUU!!!"as Coraline was making her escape and the door started chasing her, moving closer and closer to her every time her Other Mother hit it from the other side. It made me want to go into fetal position and whimper.
The soundtrack to this film, mostly composed by French composer Bruno Coulais, complements the tone and atmosphere beautifully while sounding very different from the usual fare we get in films like this. Coulais' songs are mostly choral pieces sang in a nonsense language (I thought it sounded French, but I was wrong). My favourite song has got to be the one they play over the end credits sang by the Children's Choir of Nice. I feel that it has a nice balance of playfulness and breathy creep to it.
Coraline far exceeded my expectations of it and I recommend it to anyone who would enjoy a smart and good-looking children horror film. While there are differences between the film's and the book's stories, I felt that the additions have made the movie a better experience than it would have been had it stayed overly faithful to the source material. Henry Selick's own spin of the story elevated Coraline above its printed counterpart, lending it a much needed charisma and lustre boost - but don't worry, the essence of Gaiman's story is still very much all there.
And no, you don't need to read the book in other to enjoy the movie. In fact, reading the book would actually be detrimental to your enjoyment of it. I'm sure that I would have enjoyed the movie better if I didn't already know every turn of the story.
P.S. It's a pity that I would have to wait till August before I can see Caroline (3-D!) playing in Malaysian theatres, but on the up side, Phoebe would be back by then and she'd want to see this film too.
Is waiting to see what Selick will do next,
k0k s3n w4i