Coraline’s life is a nightmare.
She’s the new girl in town, an only child living in a creaky, leaky-windowed flat in a remote house at the top of a bare and ugly hill. Her neighbors — except for an annoying, talkative boy named Wybie — are old and eccentric. Her parents write about gardening but can’t be bothered to plant any flowers to beautify their uninviting surroundings, and they are too absorbed in work to pay any attention to their daughter.
Like a certain young Dorothy before her, Coraline, the main character of the gorgeous, scary, definitely-not-for-young-kids new animated film (Henry Selick, 2009) based on Neil Gaiman’s popular young adult novel, feels neglected and bored. When her distracted father tells her to inventory the house, she finds a small doorway and heads through it, down a tunnel into a new world. It isn’t quite Emerald City. In fact, the other house looks just like the house she has left, just better: more colorful, more friendly, more delicious. Whereas at home her father cooks gray and mushy plates of chard, here she finds a warm-scented kitchen and a mother serving delectable roast chicken, mango milkshakes dispensed from the chandelier, and a cake inscribed, “Welcome Home.” The mother’s eyes are buttons, which gives Coraline pause, but the food is all so good she overlooks the oddity. Her button-eyed Other Mother and Father tuck Coraline into bed with a song and a lullaby, “Our eyes will be on Coraline.” She’s a little sad, when she wakes up, to find she’s back home. Was the other world a dream?
Everyone wants to escape their own life sometimes. When I was little, a book called Fog Magic gave me the idea that I could walk through the fog into another century. I’d try it occasionally, when the weather seemed right and my big brothers were bugging me; I’d sneak out back and to the side of the house, where tall rhododendrons leaned spookily over the path. But no matter what, even when I screwed my eyes shut tight and clicked my heels, I never went anywhere. It was okay because I didn’t have anything more terrible to escape than annoying siblings; similarly, Coraline’s complaints — “I’m bored! My parents work too much!” — are ones any child could relate to. She takes to crawling down the tunnel to the other world whenever she wants a little break from home. With her blue-black hair, her dowsing stick, and her black cat companion, Coraline’s witchy qualities fit right in with her somewhat witchy Other Mother, who always greets her with exactly what Coraline wants.
But it turns out that having every desire met is almost as tedious as having them ignored. Sated with cupcakes, Coraline’s given a pair of buttons: “For you,” her Other Mother says, “our little doll; soon you’ll see things our way.” The gift snaps Coraline out of her reverie; the suddenly creepy adventure in the Other World helps her appreciate the safe and comfortable dullness of home. She closes her eyes and tries to sleep her way back.
By this point, I was longing for an escape from the brightly-colored, near-carnival atmosphere of the Other World, too. I saw the movie twice, once in 3-D, and although for the most part the filmmakers use the technique to give the film a rich depth, they can’t resist poking sewing needles and firing booming cannons of cotton candy at the audience. It’s inventive and gorgeous until it becomes overwhelming. I took off the 3-D glasses, closed my eyes and thought about Coraline’s dilemma: if she stays in the other world, she is doted on, fed waffles for dinner and offered cupcakes between meals, but in return she must let the Other Mother stitch button eyes on her and give up seeing. She becomes a sleep-walking puppet. She loses real parents.
The film fails a bit on this score. As Libby Gruner reflects in her recent column, the parents are presented in the book as overworked and busy but never mean; the film’s parents, who are strident in their dismissals and never temper their annoyed impatience with their daughter, made me cringe a bit. Coraline’s father doesn’t even see her when, in a beautifully rendered image, she is reflected directly onto his computer screen. But in the Other World, Coraline is viewed as a little doll and she’ll be babied forever. For all her real parents’ shortcomings, they feed her vegetables, they buy her new clothes, they treat her as a person. They might seem a little tough to me — still learning how not to baby my growing boys — but they already know that their daughter is an independent, strong-willed young girl, and they see what she can become. Their parenting will let her grow.
The film concludes in a riddle-driven treasure hunt full of punning and visual trickery. Coraline discovers that the Other Mother has lured children here before who now linger as eyeless ghosts in a closet. Guided by her cat and a special triangular viewfinder, she searches both for their eyes and also for her route home as the Other World gradually crumbles away in a spectacular sea of disintegrating images. The graphic black and white is a visual relief after the candy-colored spectacle of the Other World; Coraline’s tunnel becomes a telescoping spider’s web, but she climbs it like a ladder safely home.
When Dorothy returns from Oz, she wakes up in bed delighted to see — and be seen by — friends and family. Coraline’s pleasure, too, is in seeing her parents. While she’s been off on her adventures, they’ve met their deadline and now have a break from their work. Unaware of the danger Coraline has escaped, they relax and regroup. They even plant a flower garden, bringing some bright color to their previously drab world, transplanting just a bit of what’s good from the Other World into their real life. It’s a regular old happy family ending, a pleasure to see.