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Reviewed by Laura Eldred, © 2009

Format: Movie
By:   Henry Selick (director) and Neil Gaiman (writer)
Genre:   Gothic kids movie / Neil Gaiman story
Review Date:   February 14, 2009
Audience Rating:   PG
RevSF Rating:   8/10 (What Is This?)

Has a crazy woman ever wanted to sew buttons onto your eyes?

If yes, you don’t need to read this review. You’re already living in a gorgeously twisted world. I have nothing to teach you.

If not, and if you’re over thirteen, then you should go see Coraline. Not because having your eyes replaced with buttons is fun. I’m going to assume it’s not. Go see it for its lush visual world and its twisted, fascinating story.

Coraline Jones is an imaginative girl who has moved to a new place. Without her old friends to distract her, it becomes more evident that her parents are wrapped up in their own worlds where Coraline is, at best, a distraction and, at worst, an annoyance. They’re trying to complete a garden catalog before a deadline, and Coraline is hurt by their neglect.

When she discovers a passage to another, apparently better house—where her mom roasts chickens and cooks elaborate cakes, and where her father makes a lush garden in the shape of Coraline’s face, she’s enchanted.

Yes, everyone in this other world has buttons where their eyes should be, but everyone’s also exciting and magical, and everyone dotes on Coraline. Why not stay in this other world, with “other mother,” where she feels loved rather than neglected?

It’s an excellent question. And Coraline is sorely tempted. But, before long, it becomes apparent that Other Mother may not be all that she’s cracked up to be. It becomes especially apparent when Other Mother presents Coraline with thread and two buttons and asks her to sew those buttons over her eyes.

Fans of A Nightmare Before Christmas and James and the Giant Peach, both also directed by Henry Selick, will find a lot to love here. The animation is superb, with more subtlety, especially in facial emotions, than the previous films. This film employs the same rich, but richly dark, visuals.

Characters are exaggerated and stretched into the realm of the grotesque. An aging starlet looks like a bloated, pockmarked corpse. A mouse-trainer from the circus looks like a ghastly blue spider—barrel chest on top of spindly stick arms and legs.

Beautiful as many of the images are, there’s an insidious dark vision in this film, more in the visuals than the storyline, that sticks with you.

I was not able to see it in 3D, since I live in a Podunk town, but from all I’ve heard it’s the way to go if you have the option.

The visceral jolt presented by the film’s central metaphor, the button eyes, may be a bit much for younger children. The film is rated PG, but I’d interpret this PG as a heavy PG because this is a disturbing movie. I still feel disturbed, several days after seeing it. I don’t think any of our readers here would fall into the “It’s animated so it’s a kids’ movie!” trap, but I do want to warn you. This isn’t Heavy Metal, but it ain’t Care Bears: The Musical either.

Some gaps in the storyline felt like sloppy writing. Selick might have taken some shortcuts as he translated Neil Gaiman's book for the big screen. Or that’s what I’ll choose to believe, because Neil Gaiman is perfect.

For example, at a necessary moment, the story introduces the idea that Other Mother is exceedingly fond of games. However, this hasn’t been demonstrated in the film. It’s a convenient shortcut based on the needs of the plot rather than an organic evolution of that plot. It seems contrived.

There are a couple moments like this, but they don’t detract from the film’s power. They stop it short of being a masterpiece, putting it in the “almost, but not quite” category instead.

The voice actors do a superlative job. Coraline is voiced by Dakota Fanning. Before I saw the film, I was pretty sure this would be a problem, because Dakota Fanning fills me with an irrational anger created by her insufferable cuteness and her oversaturation of all movies in the last ten years. However, her voice didn’t end up bothering me. I suspect it helped not to have Dakota's cutesy face on screen.

Teri Hatcher voices Coraline’s moms. She does a brilliant job switching between a harried, sarcastic mom and an all-too-perfect, magical 1950s housefrau. And the film’s music, almost all composed by Bruno Coulais, with one They Might be Giants song, is haunting, beautiful, and rather creepy, like the film itself.

I don’t think I’ll want my daughter to see the movie until she’s thirteen or so.

I would like her to see it. But not until she’s also ready to see some introductory level Nightmare on Elm Street.

RevSF staff writer Laura Eldred wishes everyone a merry Friday the 13th weekend.

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