Here are three sentences that will make my head turn instantly and my eyes go wide and make me go 'I must watch this and review this and watch this.'
The first is 'A stop motion picture based on a book by Neil Gaiman,' which you might note is a rather specific combination of words which does not show up frequently in the promotional materials of films. I was quite keen to see Maleficent until I saw one reviewer ruefully remarking that it was not, in fact, a stop motion picture based on a book by Neil Gaiman, and I sympathised with his disappointment.
The second is 'starring Teri Hatcher, Dawn French and Jennifer Saunders' which is a little more likely to show up, statistically speaking, but still a fairly odd one.
The third is what really made me interested, which is when Neil Gaiman himself remarked upon the difference between children's and adult's responses to the films. Children saw it as a charming, rollicking adventure, full of fun and whimsy. Adults were in turns horrified and absolutely terrified.
|Who can say why.|
Which is an intriguing thing to say about a story, that an age gap could create such a radically different response. When we think of things that children enjoy and adults don't, we usually think of fiction marketed towards very, very young children, which isn't just boring to adults but also to children even slightly older than that.
Coraline isn't boring, though: Far from it, I was hooked from the first shot.
Coraline tells the story of – er, Coraline, a girl who has recently moved into the Pink Palace, an apartment building somewhere in rural America, where she is ignored or berated by her parents, who are busy with work.
There, she meets an eccentric young boy with a cat, a pair of elderly out of work actresses (who are heavily implied to have made their living in pornography, or at least a raunchier shade of burlesque), and a Russian man training a band of mice to perform circus tricks.
She also discovers a small door behind the wallpaper of a room, though, and by night passes through it. There she finds another world, magical and bright and cheerful and perfect in all the ways that her own world isn't, with an Other Mother and Other Father totally committed to fulfilling her desires.
Also, everyone has buttons for eyes, and even though I knew it was coming it made me squirm.
Things take a sinister turn, though, when the Other Mother offers to let Coraline stay in the other world forever, and she is drawn into a surreal, savage game.
I'm going to talk about the technical elements first, because it's an incredibly feat of technical work. Stop motion animation is always impressive: It's one of those amazing things that only becomes more remarkable the more you learn about it. It's used to great effect here, with the landscapes and characters being fluid, expressive, and striking. I don't think there's ever a shot or a sequence that isn't visually stunning in one way or another, and the – I suppose you'd call it the 'real' feeling of stop-motion makes every piece of disturbing imagery more creepy and off-putting, in a way that hand-drawn animation or CGI just wouldn't be able to reproduce.
There's an excellent soundtrack, too, and the voice acting – grew on me. I'll be completely honest, the first time Coraline opened her mouth and started talking, I groaned internally, not because I thought that Dakota Fanning wasn't playing her well, or because there was anything particularly grating or unpleasant about her voice, but simply because it followed a five minute period in which nobody talked and the film stood on only its visuals and music. It's like when you're reading an Alan Moore comic, which are famous for their sparsity of dialogue, and somebody talks for the first time: The text might be finely written, but you can't help but feel disappointed that the silence has been broken.
|The arrival of Dawn French's character helped.|
I got over it. All of the voice acting is good, some of it – like Teri Hatcher's performance as the Other Mother and John Hodgson's performance as the Other Father – is superb. The dialogue writing is certainly the weakest part of this film, but that doesn't make it at all bad: It's the weakest because everything around it is so strong. Even then, it has its moments where it really shines.
It didn't take me too long to see what Gaiman meant, either. I wish I had a child nearby to get their opinion on it, but I can see how it might play out as an adventure for them: A girl travels to a magical world, and while things go horribly wrong, there's still a sense of wonder to it all, and she has an ally in the form of the unnamed cat, so she's never completely on her own.
|Although close enough, often.|
At the same time, though, that's not what I took away from it. The Other World made me nauseous, especially the scenes where the Other Mother was exerting her control over its residents, either subtly – by miming at a boy she 'fixed' to not be able to speak that he should smile – or overtly, by having a piano with hands forcibly gag and choke the Other Father. She is controlling, absolutely, even when she's not around, and as the world starts to unravel it becomes clear just how controlling she is: In small ways, in cosmically vast ways, aggressively, passively, with anger, with guilt, with cajoling – and through it all, she insists that she loves the people she's controlling. She claims it's their fault, and that they're forcing her to do this, because they're ungrateful, and because she just needs their love, and they should accept her like that.
It's chilling, because for all that she is a fantastical, demonic creature with buttons for eyes, she's also a very real portrayal of an abusive parent. She'll be nice one second and cruel the next. She'll be smothering. She'll isolate Coraline. She'll insist that she loves Coraline, that Coraline should love her, and get angry when that affection isn't returned. While Coraline's actual parents are imperfect people, the Other Mother is both a literal and figurative monster.
So of course she's going to be horrifying. As adults, we have the experience and grounding to recognise that kind of abusive behaviour when we see it, and what might just be a monster for children takes on a far more sinister meaning. Also, body horror. The film is chock-a-ful with body horror.
I'll probably try to read the book at some point, and in the meantime be baffled that this film didn't do better. I only heard about it literally last week (it's been out since 2009), and the film, while it didn't do badly in cinemas by any means, also didn't do astoundingly well, despite receiving near-universal critical acclaim and ten awards, including a BAFTA.
People should watch this. Usually I just say 'hey, check this out', but I'm going to be a little more forceful this time: It's ninety minutes long, pretty short for a film, and an excellently realised piece of horror-fantasy fiction.
Also, buttons for eyes.
This is the first time my title card has been less horrifying than the actual faces included in the thing I'm reviewing.