There’s an imbalance of animation in the steadily dwindling pile of Film 2018 DVDs and the first of these is Henry Selick’s adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s short horror novel for children, Coraline, made in 2008. In a much more angular fashion than the Aardman studio films, this was made in stop-go animation, using puppetry and individually crafted objects, many of which were produced by 3D printing.
Like Stardust, this isn’t a pure representation of the original novel, in which the titla character, eleven year old Coraline Jones, acts independently. To give Coraline someone to talk to, Selick introduced a boy character, Wybie, who shares some of the limelight with her and who, in a much-criticised move, saves the day at the last.
The film is set in and around Pink Palace Apartments, an old and dilapidated wooden-frame building in Oregon. Coraline and her parents are newly-arrived from Michigan. She’s a bright, mentally-energetic girl, with an abundance of curiosity, and they are both writers, jointly producing a Garden catalogue, meaning that they have no time for Coraline or keeping up with her need for attention.
This isn’t any kind of over-developed or narcissistic need, just the average, healthy child’s need to be secure in their place. Coraline explores the building thoroughly but uninspiredly – everything is boring and that’s not because she’s an eleven year old but because it is – and meets its eccentric other boarders, the acrobatic Russian the Amazing Bobinsky (Ian McShane) and the ex-burlesque dancers Miriam Forcible and April Spink (French and Saunders). They, like Wybie, assume her name is Caroline, instead of listening to her properly. That’s Coraline’s problem; no-one listens to her.
But there’s a door in a wall that’s been wallpapered over and locked which, when Coraline’s mother finally unlocks it, turns out to be bricked up too. Except in Coraline’s dreams, when it leads to a tunnel to another world. This world is identical to Pink Palace and its gardens except that everything’s brighter, fresher, newer, cleaner, happier, more vivid. It’s more exciting, more fantastic, it’s everything an eleven year old girl could want.
It’s even got a Mother and Father in it, who are more traditional, more fun, more devoted to Coraline. These are her Other Mother and her Other Father. They love her, they’d do anything for her. It’s an ideal world. Except for the fact that everybody has sewn-in buttons instead of eyes. There’s even another Wybie, and this one’s mute because the real world one talks too much.
Coraline revels in it, and is frustrated to keep waking up in her own bed, in her own Pink Palace. Her eccentric neighbours offer cryptic warnings that she’s in danger, whilst her Other neighbours put on wonderful shows: Bobinsky’s Jumping Mice Circus is a hoot and a magical display. Everything’s wonderful. Even the cat, who is the same creature in both worlds, passing by his own means, talks in the Other World, though he warns Coraline.
Because it’s all a construct. Coraline can stay forever, she just has to agree to have buttons sewn over her eyes, which, she being far too smart and level-headed to ever be taken in permanently, immediately treats as a deal-breaker. But the Beldam, the witch-like, spider-like being at the centre of this, the love-craving Other Mother, won’t let her go. Coraline is not the first child, summoned by dolls sewn to look exactly like them, brought into an idyllic world to love and be loved and when not loved any more, have their life eaten out of them.
Coraline escapes, but finds that her real parents have been stolen and imprisoned in the Other World. With the cat for an ally, she returns to challenge the Beldam to a game, in which she must find a ghost eye for each of the three ghost children, and her parents.
As Coraline makes her way through each of the three wonders, she finds an eye, which causes bits and pieces of this Other World to die, turn grey and splinter off into nothingness. She finds her parents trapped in her real Mother’s favourite snow globe. She wins home, but there is still a catch. Tje Beldam’s severed hand, a thing of sewing needles, has followed her. To prevent the Beldam ever returning, the key must be removed beyond reach. Coraline intends to chuck it down the deep, disused well outside the garden.
Here is where the controversy sits. Selick invented Wybie for someone to talk to, a device to keep the film from ending in under fifty minutes. Now it takes an intervention by the real Wybie, deus ex machina, to destroy the hand, and the two of them to weight everything down with a rock to drop down the well.
In a way, it’s an heroic convention, not quite a cliche, but a subtle trope: the hero carries the burden but, at the last, needs the help of the ineffectual sidekick to complete the task: think Frodo and Sam or, more aptly in the last instance, Frodo and Gollum in the Mountain, in the book if not the film.
But think of it a different way, and it’s a chauvinistic ending. The film’s about a girl, an independent, enterprising girl, who acts alone, who fights and defeats a superior enemy. But it takes a boy to pull her fat out of the fire or it would have all gone for nothing. Girls: can’t do anything right.
All it needed was a slight twist: Wybie intervenes, finds himself in danger, Coraline recovers her breath, finishes it off. Maybe thirty seconds extra footage and you don’t revert to cliche.
That caveat aside, I love the film. It’s visually inventive, it takes its time, it’s creepy and wierd. There are angles and parallels to the story that I haven’t mentioned, making the Other Mother more closely aligned with the real one (Teri Hatcher), oodles of visual detail that treat the eye. And the voices are also excellent, with sixteen year old Dakota Fanning playing the lead role.
Though the Wybie rescue is an intrusion, the film has the wit to end on a charming note, suggesting Coraline’s future in the real world will be a bit more balanced. The Garden Catalogue is a success and Coraline organises a planting party, with plentiful lemonade, at which the utilitarian garden is, at her suggestion, planted with colourful tulips, and the guests get her name right.
I doubt we’ll ever get a pure Neil Gaiman adaptation, not one that captures his severe, almost austere tones, but what Coraline brings to the story is a mostly delightful substitute, just like Stardust. Sometimes, a little more light in victory is a necessary thing.