Coraline is the second Neil Gaiman book I’ve had the pleasure of reading (the first being The Graveyard Book). I loved the story, the atmosphere, the style, the heroine… it’s a very good little book.
So I went to the theater to see Coraline last night with great expectations. I’d read some spoilerless reviews, and already had a general idea of some of the things certain people didn’t like about it. Some complained that the animation and art direction was lifeless and/or cold. Others said the plot and pacing was boring and uninspired. But for every one of these negative reviews I read nine that had generally high praise for the movie. Having seen the movie, I definitely fall in to the praise section.
Beyond here be spoilers…
My biggest complaints about the movie stem from the addition of Caroline’s neighbor Wybie (short for Wyborn or “Why born”). It’s apparent that his presence was not welcomed by whoever named him (he lives with his grandmother, and I didn’t catch any mention of parents). Unfortunately, Coraline shares this distaste for him, despite him DOING NOTHING WRONG.
Ok, he’s not perfect. The kids’ first meeting involves Wyborn racing in on a dirtbike and wearing a scary, mechanical skeleton mask. He’s generally friendly, but he does call the dowsing rod wielding Coraline a “water witch“. He then proceeds to be the first last (thanks to my wife for the correction) of all her neighbors to get her name wrong (CORAline, not CAROline) which he calls an ordinary name that isn’t all bad because it’ll lead people to have ordinary expectations of her. But otherwise, he speaks with a pleasant tone of voice, asks completely acceptable questions of Coraline without offering too much personal information in return, and seems like he would make a fun, interesting, perhaps even trustworthy friend. And what does bored, lonely Coraline do? She calls him “Why…BORN” in a nasty tone and tries very hard to get rid of him. The movie’s just started, and Coraline is mean and kind of a jerk.
Maybe this was intended to give Coraline’s character room for improvement. I rarely like that argument from screenplay writers and directors (*cough* Faramir *cough*), but it seems to come up often. Alas.
Since I warned that this review would have spoilers, I’m assuming that most people reading this far will have already seen the movie or read the book. But if you’re not familiar with the plot at all, you might want to take a look at this extremely brief summary, since I’m not going to fill in any gaps as I jump ahead.
While Coraline is much nicer to the Other Wybie in the Other World, most of this is probably due to the fact that the Other Mother created him to be mute. Still, mute or not, he pays more attention to Coraline than the ADD-stricken other-other-Wybie, and attention is certainly something she values. But the addition of ANOTHER one of the Other Mother’s creations that rebels against her and tries to aid Coraline? I understood the Other Father being this way (and I thought his helping Coraline get a soul/eye in the movie as opposed to just telling her to run before he would lose control over his actions and try to get her in the book was excellent). But the Other Wybie’s resistance makes me wonder why the Other Mother bothered the create him, which leads me to wonder why she bothered with the Other Father. It’s a can of worms that didn’t need to be opened.
Lastly on the Wybie train is the ending. Unlike in the book, Coraline doesn’t have any knowledge that the beldam’s hand (that broke off when she shut the door on her) is alive and trying to steal the key to the Other World. The ghost children she saved from the Other World appear to her (in a quick dream with ridiculous angel wings and halos – not the well written dream picnic sequence of the book) and warn her that the key must be destroyed. Gone is the sense of urgency as Coraline finds scratches on her window or sees a dark shape scuttling around the house. And most terribly, gone is Coraline’s excellent plot to stage a tea party on top of the well and trick the bedlam’s hand in to plummeting to its new prison and taking the key out of the picture with it. Instead Coraline takes it to the well to simply drop it in, the hand tries to snatch it from her, and Wybie shows up at the last minute to save the day. Yes, Wybie gets to be a hero too.
I know Coraline was the main hero, mostly defeating the beldam in the Other World. But her final victory over the hand at the well was exciting and smart. To take that away from her seems a shame.
So despite my biggest complaints about the movie stemming from the addition of Wybie, I didn’t mind his character much at all. I actually liked him. Using a periscope to find slugs beneath a rolling fog? Talking about how scientific sounding a name is? Wybie’s a nerd, and a worthy sidekick. If only Coraline wasn’t so mean to him without good cause, and especially if the plot wasn’t changed to use him as a last-minute hero to save the day, I’d say it wasn’t harmful to add him. But regardless, Wybie was an unnecessary additon to the film, and his character was certainly used to the movie’s disadvantage more than once.
That’s really about all I have for noteable complaints. Now on to the good stuff (with some minor nitpicks as they come up)!
The movie looks great. The stop-motion animation gives the movie a very special, timeless, feeling that can vary from warm to eerie with ease. I was bothered by the low frame rate that popped up every now and then. One moment a character will be walking along and moving around with fluid, smooth movements. Then the camera cuts to a new angle or scene and all of a sudden it’s jerky and gritty. I know that to meet budget and poroduction time constraints the animators need to do this from time to time. I still wouldn’t have minded if they had more time to make these scenes smoother.
Special effects. I like how certain things were handled. The way the edges of the Other World as well as its gradual dissolving were all handled in the book was fine… fog, mist, nothingness. But in the movie, things kind of fade out in digital, sharp, angles and pixels. This isn’t a computer program or the Matrix, but this style seemed to work well and I liked it.
I saw the movie trailer before I read the book, so Coraline and her parents looked and sounded just like they did in my head when I read the book. I didn’t picture her downstairs neighbors Forcible and Spink as dry, leathery, and wrinkled as the movie portrayed them. I thought of them as warm and old in their appearances, and only off putting in their speech and behavior. The movie made them a disturbing in appearance and a little less odd in their speech.
The soundtrack was just right, always seeming to fit the mood. My wife and I both looked at each other in amazement and glee as John Hodgman’s Other Father breaks in to song at a piano with the voice and musical stylings of John Linnell of They Might Be Giants. After the fact I recalled hearing the 30-second song on a TMBG podcast last year, but had no idea the Johns had contributed to the movie. The TMBG wiki explains that the band wrote a bunch of songs for the movie in early production, and all but one were scrapped as the movie turned in a different direction. I’d lament the loss, but one of the unused songs was included on their 2007 album, The Else, and while it’s not terrible, I don’t see how it could have possibly fit in the movie. The “Other Father Song” is perfect.
In the book, there’s a stark difference between Other Neighbors’ apartments before and after the beldam is trying to seduce Coraline. In the movie, the differences are subtler. In the real world, Forcible and Spink’s dogs get stuffed, given wings, and kept on shelves in the apartment. When the Other Dogs transform in to winged bat creatures in the post-seduction Other World, it’s not so out of left-field any more. Similarly, instead of being in a strange cocoon like in the book, post-seduction Forcible and Spink’s cocoon is hidden in a giant taffy wrapper (they offer taffy to Coraline in the real world and even retrieve the crucial hole-with-a-stone from the bottom of a taffy bowl).
A change that I THINK I liked was that Coraline’s parents are much nicer to her towards the end of the movie. I’m not sure that I like this because the change is attributed mainly to the parents’ gardening catalog being done. Now they don’t have to work so hard, they have more time for Coraline, even presumably more money too. Who wouldn’t be a slightly improved parent in that situation? In the book, her parents are nicer to her in the end because she’s nicer to them. Granted, the blame should fall on the parents to treat their children better than their children treat them, but in the movie it feels like the change had little to do with Coraline’s events in the Other World. It does make for a cheerier close though.
I might have to wait until I’ve seen the movie again, or read some other reviews, to add more. I loved the movie, and I still love the book. I’d still recomend the book over the movie if I had to pick just one, but I certainly think anyone who experienced one and enjoyed it should try the other.