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The parent trap

Coraline pushes familiar buttons
By PETER KEOUGH  |  February 6, 2009
2.0 2.0 Stars

VIDEO: The trailer for Coraline 3-D

Coraline 3-D | Directed by Henry Selick | Written by Henry Selick based on the novel by Neil Gaiman | with the voices of Dakota Fanning, Teri Hatcher, Keith David, John Hodgman, Robert Bailey Jr., Dawn French, Jennifer Saunders, and Ian McShane | Focus Features | 100 Minutes
Children's books respect the intelligence of their audience — why can't children's movies? The genre has gravely declined. Case in point: Coraline, which Henry Selick adapted from the weird and funny Neil Gaiman novel. Last week, Gaiman, the author also of the brilliant '90s comics series The Sandman, won the Newbery Medal, the most prestigious award in American children's literature, for his scary and wonderful novel The Graveyard Book. For his part, Selick has collaborated with Tim Burton in the creepy and satisfying The Nightmare BeforeChristmas (1993) and made a poignant and surreal adaptation of Roald Dahl's James and the Giant Peach (1996). So how and why did the pair of them come up with this regressive, sometimes subversive, but mostly annoying disappointment?

Let's start with the casting. Dakota Fanning voices the title role, and her shrill little shrieks echo in my ears even now; she and the debased dialogue transform Gaiman's droll, Alice-like heroine into a tween clichû. I might also mention the presence of another character not in the book, a nerdy boy (Robert Bailey Jr.), included so Coraline won't have to extricate herself from danger without the help of a saving knight.

She's pretty independent to start out with, however, as witness the dyed-blue hair, the Juno-esque fashion sense, and the petulant whining. She's bored with the family's new home in a dilapidated old apartment building surrounded by dead and dreary grounds. She's also fed up with her parents (Teri Hatcher and John Hodgman), who labor over the gardening catalogue they're writing (and get this: they hate gardening) and ignore her. So when the brick wall sealing the tiny door in her bedroom vanishes in a dream, of course she goes exploring.

It opens into a portal that looks like a womb, or maybe the tornado funnel from The Wizard of Oz turned sideways. Sure enough, we're not in Kansas anymore, or Oz for that matter, but an alternative universe where the food tastes better and, briefly, the story gets more interesting. Here Coraline's "Other Mother" is a grinning nurturer, dad is a piano-playing (or rather, the piano plays him) goof whose garden actually grows swarms of delightful, slightly sinister, insect-like flowers, and the eccentric neighbors put on bizarre but crowd-pleasing revues. But what's with the buttons sealing everybody's eyes?

On the surface, the original Coraline preaches a variation on the "no place like home" bromide, telling kids that, sure, your parents suck, but they love you, and anything you could dream up as a substitute would be a lot worse. But it goes deeper, into existential anxieties about identity, illusion, reality, boredom, and fun. Too deep for kids? They can probably handle it better than adults — just take a look at Lewis Carroll, Rudyard Kipling, and the Brothers Grimm.

The movie, though, dares not go below the surface. Could the problem be its use of 3-D? Did the filmmakers think that to offset this additional, illusory visual dimension they had to remove all depth from the story itself? The only potent use of the process comes with a close-up of a needle plunging into the audience's face — evidently to sew up our eyes with buttons. Perhaps Gaiman and Selick are trying to warn children against this movie and others like it: beware, they want to steal your souls.

Related: Review: Push, The Secret Life of Bees, Review: The Runaways, More more >
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