Dakota Fanning as the voice of Coraline Jones
Robert Bailey, Jr. as the voice of Wybornne ‘Wybie’ Lovat
Teri Hatcher as the voice of Mother/Other Voice
John Hodgman as the voice of Father/Other Father
Jennifer Saunders as the voice of Miss Spink
Dawn French as the voice of Miss Forcible
Ian McShane as the voice of Mr. Bobinsky
Keith David as the voice of the Cat
There are some artists who’s voices are so intrinsically tied to a particular medium, that they are either untranslatable to another, or so out of the norm when done that audiences may not know what to make of them. Award winning comics writer and novelist Neil Gaiman may well be one of them. His previous forays into film, either as a writer or having his work adapted by others, have been uneven at best. Coming from works where his authorial vision is undisputed (even his comics work are writer’s books first) to the collaborative world of film has tended to dilute his work at best. He may finally have found a collaborator with as singular a vision as his own in Henry Selick (“The Nightmare Before Christmas”) for a film that genuinely captures his particular voice in the adaptation of his critically-acclaimed children’s book, “Coraline.”
Coraline Jones (Dakota Fanning) has just moved out to the country with her parents (Teri Hatcher and John Hodge), a pair of successful horticultural columnists, who are hard at work on their new book and don’t have much time for their precocious daughter. In the never ending struggle against boredom, Coraline sets out to explore the house they’re renting, and find out its secrets. And she finds one. A secret door in the living room that leads to an Other House, in an Other World where it’s always night and everyone has buttons for eyes and her Other Mother and Other Father only have (button) eyes for her.
All of Gaiman’s favorite storytelling ticks are here. Magical other worlds sitting side-by-side with our own that we can fall into if we’re not paying close enough attention. The doings of cats when we’re not paying attention to them. Old words and names from story folklore, to give the goings on the patina of age and otherworldliness a good fairy tail needs. And it is a very good fairy tail. The plot is fairly mechanical–every time Coraline meets one of her neighbors, for instance, she soon after meets the Other world version as well–as the geography of the story’s structure is laid out. The enjoyment of a Gaiman story isn’t really where it goes but how it gets there, the world he creates and how it works, and that is very true of “Coraline.” It is enthralling right from the beginning, even if you’re not seeing it in 3D. In fact, this is probably the first film I’ve seen that doesn’t have to rely at all on 3D, allowing it to add depth without becoming what the film is all about.
And that’s mainly because he’s found the perfect collaborator in Henry Selick, who also wrote the screenplay. Selick’s own visual style and natural storytelling proclivities are as dark and out of the ordinary as Gaiman’s tend to be and they match each other very well in a film adaption. And stop-motion animation, being a long painstaking process that requires a different kind of collaboration than other types of filmmaking, is perfect for relaying that vision to the screen without getting diluted by too many hands stirring the pot. “Coraline” is the most faithful adaption of a Gaiman story yet, and the first to really capture his unique voice and put it on screen.
Which may be its problem, depending on your point of view. “Coraline” is very, very dark–especially in its third act when the cost of her visits to the Other world is revealed–and probably not suitable for young children. It’s a children’s story, but it’s a children’s story for adults, or at least preteens. Not quite “Pan’s Labyrinth” but not “Sleeping Beauty” either. There is very little singing and pageantry and no cute sidekicks or funny one-liners. But cloaked in the trappings of animation, its content could well be misinterpreted, keeping away the people it’s for and drawing in an audience that isn’t ready to appreciate it.
I could be wrong. I hope I am. “Coraline” looks fantastic and is wonderfully told, but you should probably leave your five and six year olds at home, especially if they get nightmares easily. Its possible Gaiman just isn’t the type of writer that’s well-suited to the big screen. But actually, I think that’s probably a good thing.