Saturday, August 29, 2009


Button, Button, who's got the button?

Coraline Jones (Dakota Fanning) is a disaffected young girl who moves to a new state after her parents (John Hodgman and Teri Hatcher), who both write for gardening publications, get new jobs. Having had to leave her old life and friends behind, Coraline is understandably bitter about the whole thing.

As a means of getting her out of their hair, her parents encourage Coraline to explore the boring house that she now has to call home, at which point she meets her eccentric neighbours, who include Mr. B (Ian McShane), a Russian gymnast who trains mice, and Misses Spink and Forcible (Jennifer Saunders and Dawn French). Coraline is just about fed up with the whole situation until she discovers a doorway to another world that contains Other versions of her family and friends, all of whom seem infinitely better than the real ones, aside from their eyes, which are not eyes at all, but buttons.

I first saw Coraline about four months ago in a big theatre in Manchester - a far cry from my usual routine of seeing films in dingy, tiny cinemas - and I had very high expectations. I'm a massive fan of Neil Gaiman, whose novella the film is based on and which is one of the best pieces of children's literature of the last decade, and I'm also an admirer of Henry Selick, whose previous animation credits include The Nightmare Before Christmas and James and The Giant Peach. If you were to draw a Venn diagram of the two men's work, I would be sat squarely at the point where they intersect, jumping up and down with childish glee and an existential dread that I had somehow appeared at the centre of an abstract used to describe hypothetical possibilities. I hate it when that happens.

So, I left the cinema and I was...not disappointed, but not blown away, either. Everything seemed right. The animation was stunning, demonstrating how much you can achieve with a proper synthesis of traditional stop-motion animation and modern computer graphics, the film nailed the tone of the book (which is perhaps not surprising since the book has a very Roald Dahl-ish quality to it and Selick had previously adapted James and The Giant Peach for the big screen) and, most importantly, the film managed to be funny and have a sense of adventure about it whilst also remaining thoroughly creepy.

Why then, did I not love it?

I think it might largely be because the first half an hour, which takes place solely in the 'real' world, is pretty dull. The colour palette of the film during this point consists largely, almost entirely, of grays and variations thereof. Coraline's main distinguishing characteristic during this time is one of boredom, as she struggles to find something interesting to do, and I was right there with her since I found myself looking for something interesting in the film.

This is, of course, intentional. The real world has to be drab and dim and dismal so that once Coraline steps into the Other world, which by comparison is full of light (somewhat paradoxically, since the Other World is only seen at nighttime) and every inch of her world is suddenly infused with colour. I saw the film in 2-D, but apparently in 3-D this idea is taken even further since Selick has the real world feel close and tiny and the Other World stretch into infinity. Unless Selick establishes Coraline's malaise early on then her fascination with the Other World would not be totally believable. We need to experience her boredom in order for the excitement and wonder of the Other World to overshadow its obvious creepiness.

Even then, though, something seems off. The apotheosis of the problem is Coraline's Other Father, who speaks largely in non-sequiturs and fawns over his daughter, to the extent of singing songs about her that are perhaps meant to be beguiling but end up seeming cloying and embarrassing. This atmosphere lay over the film as I watched it, occluding the many positives.

I've seen the film a second time, now, and most of the problems on the second viewing seemed to vanish. Since I knew when the switch between the worlds was going to happen, I didn't find myself impatiently waiting during the opening half an hour, and the embarrassing, cloying atmosphere made sense within the context of the Other Mother's attempts to ensnare Coraline in her world.

Coraline is a film that has much to recommend it, but maybe only on a second viewing.