As with many of my previous reviews, I have to admit to a certain level of bias here. I am an enormous fan (figuratively speaking of course) of writer Neil Gaiman, whose complex imaginings have left the world with such marvellous pieces as “the Sandman” comic series, the bestselling novel “American Gods” and the new child-friendly novel “The Graveyard Book” which is currently being developed for film by another of my favourite Neils: Neil Jordan. “Coraline”, another child-orientated novel, was one of the Gaiman’s most successful works: the haunting, charming and often sinister tale of a resourceful young girl who discovers a door to another world when she moves into an old apartment with her family. While in the real world her parents are caring but distracted, the Other Mother and Other Father at first present nothing but games, sweets and gifts but soon Coraline realises they have a more frightening agenda, in a menacing turn of events involving buttons, snow globes and some ghastly transformations. Brilliantly written and unforgettably vivid, the novel has remained imprinted in my memory since I first read it, so when I heard that a stop-motion film adaptation was being produced, written and directed by Henry Selkirk, the visionary director of “The Nightmare Before Christmas”, I was very excited, although I was more than a little wary. Other adaptations of Gaiman’s work have proved disappointing: the feather-light “Stardust” became a little saccarine, while “Beowulf” (which he co-wrote) was interesting but awful. The film received high critical acclaim but was given a rather quiet release in the UK and unfortunately I missed it. Only now with the release of the DVD did I finally get the chance to see it.
Image via Wikipedia
So did it live up to my expectations? Well, not quite, but it really is charming. The voice acting is top notch, even if Dakota Fanning’s performance can become somewhat bratty, while the music, reminiscent of Danny Elfman’s work with Selkirk in the past, creates a suitable fairy-tale feel. The stop motion animation is simply superb. Bringing life to a range of bizarre and wonderful characters which are at once believable and grotesque, the attention to detail (tiny hand-stitched knitwear can be seen worn by several of the figures, for example) and the imagination given to character designs mirrors the innovations of the original story brilliantly. The infinitesimal charm of the animation is then accentuated by remarkably well-chosen use of the 3-D gimmick. I have to say, I’d been sceptical of the new spate of 3-D films: the decision to make kid’s movies more gawp-worthy and horror movie jump scares more immediate by sticking the occasional hand through the screen will quickly get old, but its use in “Coraline” is delightfully understated. With the exception of a handful of moments in which hands, needles or other objects are thrust at the viewer, the technique is largely used simply to draw the audience in to the strange, wonderful and horrible world the protagonist finds, adding to the sense of wonder and to the immersive nature of the film. The result is a piece which is just as watchable in 2-D as it is in 3-D, full of awe-inspiring visuals and stunning intricacies.
My main issues with the film come not from the sumptuous audio-visual experience it creates but from its weaknesses when compared to the novel. At 100 minutes long, it moves slightly too fast, the creeping dread that replaces the wonder of the Other world in the novel takes place just a little too fast for my liking. Some of the nastier scenes are also woefully abbreviated, too, the battles with the grotesque versions of inhabitants of the Other World last only a few minutes each and are not particularly disturbing. I was particularly disappointed that one of the most distressing scenes of the book, in which Coraline witnesses the transformation of the Other Father into a hideous lava-like monster, is adapted almost beyond recognition. It’s a pity: that was a scene that really stuck with me and one that really drove home the dangers that the Other World and the sinister Other Mother represented. Thankfully other alterations are more understandable. The addition of a new character, a sort of foil to Coraline, allows the interior monologues of the book to become externalised, even if his appearance does mean the presence of the cat, a frankly marvellous character, is reduced.
In short, though the dark heart of the story that made the novella a modern classic has been watered down so greatly it is almost trivialised, it’s a beautiful spectacle and a lot of fun. I expect that in a few year’s time, it will be seen as something of a technological forerunner in much the same way that we now look back on “Toy Story” as the genesis for the digital saturation of the children’s market: technically brilliant and covering new ground but otherwise a rather ordinary family film.