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    Coraline

    Wed, 04 Feb 2009 18:38:19

    Movie Reviews: Coraline

    Director/screenwriter Henry Selick's animated adaptation of Neil Gaiman's award-winning children's novel is undeniably beautiful but ultimately frustrating. Selick has made so many small and not-so-small changes to the original story that some of its spirit gets lost amid the (admittedly gorgeous) eye-candy.

    In the book, Coraline (Dakota Fanning) is a lonely girl who is smart, resourceful, and brave enough to outwit an evil "other mother" (Teri Hatcher) who lives through a magic doorway. But in the movie, a neighbor boy (Robert Bailey Jr.) who does not even appear in the book ends up delivering the coup de grace that defeats the creature. So much for female empowerment.

    The movie itself has a lot in common with the warped-reality characters Coraline meets on the other side of the doorway. Everything she encounters there is recognizable and, at first, visually appealing. Yet none of it turns out to be as good as what the copies were created to resemble. Example: In the book's scariest and most disturbing scene, a monstrously grub-like version of Coraline's father (John Hodgman) attacks her in a dark, narrow cellar. In the movie, that scene takes place in a fantabulous flower garden, with dad riding a mechanical praying mantis. It's the difference between Guillermo del Toro's eerily creepy Pan's Labyrinth and Walt Disney's odd but unthreatening Alice in Wonderland.

    In the movie, but not in the book, the "other mother" spies on children in this world by using eavesdropping dolls. That's not a bad new idea in itself, but it is clumsily employed. Instead of Coraline finding her "Little Me" doll where she lives, the neighbor boy brings it over from his grandmother's house.

    Why the story's setting has been shifted from evocative England to unexciting Oregon for the movie is as big a mystery as why a character named Mr. Bobo becomes Mr. Bobinsky (Ian McShane), or why the time of year has been switched from summer vacation to (of all things) Presidents Day. Tweaks like these seem annoyingly arbitrary. Yes, a book is a book and a movie is a movie, but changes made for no good reason seem disrespectful to the original novel.

    All of Selick's narrative wrongheadedness sure looks good, though. The characters are puppet-style figures, painstakingly moved and photographed one frame at a time to simulate motion (a la Selick's James and the Giant Peach and The Nightmare Before Christmas). The extremely expressive Coraline figure only slightly resembles the book's illustrations, but that's not a problem. Selick and voice actor Fanning make her seem charmingly real.

    Strangely, though, even Selick's unrestrained creativity sometimes presents a problem. Coraline is supposed to be about a bored, normal girl who visits a bizarre fantasy reality. That premise is defeated here by the fact that her "real world" neighbors already look bizarrely cartoonish. Mr. Bobinsky, for example, has grey-blue skin and freakishly unnatural anatomy. That doesn't leave a lot of room for further "weirding up" of his appearance in the other world. One character who survives the transition from page to screen with no loss of personality or style is a nameless black cat, voiced with imperious cool by actor Keith David.

    Even Selick apparently knows that you just don't mess with a cat.

    —James Dawson
    02.05.09

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