In 2002, Neil Gaiman wrote a dark story for children about a lonely, bored young girl, the eponymous Coraline, who finds a creepy, alternate version of her home and family on the opposite end of a locked door in her home. Now, Henry Selick, the visionary animator behind the brilliantly macabre The Nightmare Before Christmas and Corpse Bride, has transformed Gaiman’s novel into a visually sumptuous and perhaps even more twisted fairy tale, substituting the original story’s stark other-world for a lush fantastical place of endlessly inventive imagination, where all of Coraline’s wildest dreams can come true but with a price that is far too steep.
Gaiman himself wrote the screenplay for the film, so it is difficult to tell which ideas were his and which were Selick’s, but suffice it to say that Coraline the film exceeds Coraline the novel on nearly every level. This is not surprising, though; Gaiman is an incredibly visual storyteller and his work in the comics and film mediums are nearly always stronger than his strictly prose creations. With Coraline, Selick and he are able to take the raw material of his book–the relentless tedium that drives his protagonist to seek out a key to a door that seems to lead nowhere; Coraline’s feelings of frustration and neglect at the hands of her well-meaning but busy, work-absorbed parents; the eerie notion of an alternate world populated by creatures who look almost exactly like people you love, but not quite–and develop it into an even more satisfying and complex film.
To begin with, the film fleshes out the characters to a greater degree than the novel. Although the parents of the book both seem a bit preoccupied and send Coraline on her not-so-merry way (i.e. out of their hair), they are rather passive about it. The parents of the film, on the other hand–particularly the mother–are more aggressively in their own worlds. The mother continually snaps at Coraline that she is pestering her and the father seems to have no use for her, either–at least in the early part of the film. On top of that, he makes grotesque, nausea-inducing meals that she is forced to eat against her will. Later on, the film reveals her parents’ softer sides and it becomes clear that the reason they seemed so borderline monstrous at the start was that it was from Coraline’s point-of-view all along. From the perspective of a stir-crazy and overly dramatic young girl, a parent being too busy to pay full attention to her is equivalent to abuse.
But this is also what is so delicious about the film’s reversal when Coraline meets her “other” parents in the alternate world. Whereas the Coraline of the book finds a strangely colored, and almost disturbingly off-kilter and off-putting place on the other side of the magical door, the Coraline of the film finds a veritable wonderland of delights, not only of the visual variety but of taste, touch, smell, and sound, as well. The moment she meets her Other Mother, the woman, identical to her real mother in every way besides the button eyes, presents her with a feast to rival Belle’s from Disney’s Beauty and the Beast, including roasted chicken and mashed potatoes and gravy (which is delivered on an electric model gravy train) and all the sides that one could possibly imagine, along with scrumptious desserts, to boot. Her Other Father serenades her with a song about herself that he quickly dashes off on his player piano. The luxurious house is filled with gorgeous furniture, including a canopied bed in her room that looks like it fell from the pages of a fairy tale. On subsequent visits, she is also not only treated to a performance by the Mouse Circus upstairs and the crazy old actresses downstairs, as in the book (though in an even more freewheeling style than the book describes) but is taken outside to her father’s garden, which is filled with even more wonders, such as daisy trumpets, living flowers, and awesome mechanical bugs. And when he takes her up in his magical flying machine, she discovers that the entire thing, from above, is a large-scale portrait of her face. It is also always night in this world, and everything gleams in the light of the moon. She even bonds with her Other Father, who is loving and attentive and fun.
In other words, the Other Mother’s world is one that no child would ever want to leave. It is clear why Coraline is so tempted to stay, and why she continues to return night after night. This is also developed in greater detail than the book, in which Coraline visits the Beldam’s world, is thoroughly disturbed, and as soon as the witch tries to convince her to replace her eyes for buttons, decides to leave immediately. In the film, the fateful visit where the cards are finally placed on the table is the significantly numbered third. But before this seemingly flawless world is shattered, one can completely understand Coraline’s struggle. Yes, this world is too practically perfect in every way to be true (besides the button eyes), and at the start, this indicates to her that something might be wrong, but as her home life grows more and more frustrating, Coraline finds herself more and more drawn to the Beldam’s illusion. The fact that she is so enticed makes for a far more interesting inner conflict than the original character had.
Other clever additions include Wybie, a very strange neighborhood boy whose grandmother is Coraline’s family’s landlord, and the doll which Wybie gives Coraline; a doll which, after a genuinely creepy opening sequence, becomes a recurring visual and symbolic theme, as well as a frightening plot point. Meanwhile, Wybie himself at first, in the real world, presents us with an idea of how other children might see the offbeat Coraline, even as he is incredibly offbeat himself, while the Other version of himself in the fantasy world provides one of the first intrusions of true horror into Coraline’s dreamworld. His grandmother and her doll are also connected to the plot in a manner that is both unexpected and completely fitting.
But most of all, where Coraline succeeds most strongly is in solidifying the character of the Beldam, making her a great screen villain. While the book only presented her through the eyes of Coraline, the film gives a broader scope to her character motivation. The key to understanding why she does what she does–why she takes such time and effort in crafting such an appetizing carrot to dangle in front of Coraline–and why she allows the girl to embark on a quest of her own near the end of the film, is not just because she derives power from the souls of the children but even more importantly, because she loves playing games. The only problem with a love of games is that after all of the planning and plotting and scheming, as soon as the game is won, one is immediately ready for the next. Selick presents the Other Mother as seeming to be part mechanical. She runs like a steampunk machine (like Other Father’s nifty inventions), crafting an all-but-perfect program but devoid of that certain spark, the touch of human understanding.
Coraline, in both incarnations, is a dark gem whose luster is only enhanced by the visual medium. Henry Selick’s stop motion animation, in particular, proves to be the ideal vehicle with which to expand this tale. It allows for “real-world” scenes that are almost just like our world but ever so slightly twisted, as well as phantasmagorical fantasy landscapes made all the more phantasmagorical with the knowledge that every single element of each frame was crafted by hand. This is a cinematic masterpiece.
This review first appeared on Rob Will Review.