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Be careful what you wish for, because it might just

dir: Henry Selick

You don’t know how wary I was going into this. Genuinely scared. Not scared in the sense that I was scared about what would happen in the story, or about some of the imagery. Sensitive little tulip that I am.

What I was most scared of was the prospect of disappointment. I love the works of Neil Gaiman and Henry Selick so much that the potential for failure seemed very high. Gaiman has written so much incredible stuff, including Coraline itself, and then there’s all the Sandman stuff, and American Gods, and and and…I need to curb the fanboy enthusiasm. Selick made James and the Giant Peach, and Nightmare Before Christmas, both of which I love, and is probably one of the (last) greats in the field of this old school style of animation.

It was a sweet relief to have all my fears allayed. Coraline isn’t a perfect flick, either in its story or its rendering, which is a mixture of stop-motion ‘solid’ animation and computer generated imagery, but it’s so goddamn close that the distinction becomes purely academic. Neil Gaiman, as with any of the greats when it comes to working in the areas of fantasy or what are often derisively dismissed as children’s fairy tales, understands the deep psychological underpinnings of what he’s working with, in the way that the Brothers Grimm and the creators of mythology throughout the ages have always understood. It’s not just childhood fears that these people have to approach and understand: they have to know the different motivations and intensities of feeling that children possess and most of us adults have forgotten. When people like Henry Selick and Neil Gaiman get it right, they forcefully remind us again.

Of course there are similarities with other tales, from Hayao Miyazaki’s Studio Ghibli stuff to Alice in Wonderland to more ancient stuff, but I should really learn to stay on message and deal with the subject at hand without feeling the need to start enumerating everything else I’ve ever thought of in excruciating detail.

What I absolutely loved about Coraline the most was the fact, which seems really obvious on the surface, that Coraline makes choices and has to act in order to achieve anything in this story. She’s not just a character that stuff happens to until a cliché ending where every bit of a status quo is restored. She’s a bit of a brat who almost gets everything she could ever have wished for, only to realise that if she doesn’t work really hard, everything will become terrible forever for a lot of people, especially herself.

I’m utterly and thoroughly sick of kids stories where a child is an anointed one of some description, that a whole bunch of stuff happens to as they wander blithely through their own story, as plot device more than character and as acted-upon rather than actor. Coraline is the antithesis of that, which is why she reminded me so much of some of my other favourite heroines from children’s stories such as Chihiro / Sen from Spirited Away, or Lyra Silvertongue from the His Dark Materials trilogy by Phillip Pullman. Damn it, I just did it again.

Coraline and her parents have just moved to a new house. It’s called the Pink Palace, and it seems to be a nice place in the middle of nowhere, subdivided into a bunch of apartments. Coraline’s parents are nice enough, but they’re more focussed on their own lives rather than catering to Coraline’s every whim. And fair enough, too. Coraline is a bit bummed out about having moved, and finds it frustrating when her parents elect to, you know, work and stuff and not just bask in the gloriousness that is Coraline. And, as an added irony, they are gardening writers who hate gardening, because of all that icky dirt.

Left to her own devices, Coraline gets to know of the other denizens of the Pink Palace, including a perhaps handicapped boy called Wybie whose grandmother is the landlady, and who is always calling out for her worthless grandson to come home. Coraline dislikes Wybie the way any sensible girl dislikes most boys at that age (and, if there was any justice or logic in the world, they’d dislike them until at least twenty), but he is a diversion, at least.

There are also two grand dames of the stage in another apartment, Ms Spink and Ms Forcible, one of whom possesses a tremendous, um, décolletage which would look more appropriate on the prow of a ship. The other has a tremendous, uh, seat that would inspire the members of Spinal Tap to sing their classic anthem Big Bottom no end.

Then there’s the strange acrobatic man who trains jumping rats. All of this seems like it’s a cast of misfits who’ll dislike each other at first but will learn to come together in order to battle a common enemy. That couldn’t be further from the truth.

The thing is, there’s this world, ‘our’ world for lack of a better descriptor, and then there’s another world, seemingly created entirely for Coraline’s benefit. After becoming irritated with her parents, she finds a place, with the aid of a button-eyed doll that looks suspiciously like Coraline, down to the blue hair and upturned nose, where everything is more to her liking.

In this other world, where her mother is a great cook and super attentive to her every need, and her father is fun, exciting, and does a whole heap of things to inspire and delight Coraline, the only problem is that these other parents have button eyes too. And, whilst everything still seems way too good to be true, she gets the offered devil’s bargain in the form of an exchange: stay here in this realm of perpetual wish-fulfilment forever, and all you have to do is hand over your eyes.

It would seem to be a small price to pay, I guess. The thing is, though, this Other Mother seems like she’s all sweetness and light and pancakes for dinner, but perhaps there’s something sinister about someone who constructs a world precisely to your liking?

And plus there’s the whole button-eye thing as well. That can’t be good.

At first we think this Other realm is just a fantasy of Coraline’s, because it seems to coincide with Coraline’s nightly sleeps. Her first journey seems like a dream. Her second is out of anger, as a rejection of her ‘real’ parents and the ‘real’ world, being painful, messy and dissatisfying much of the time. It’s around this time that we start realising that this dreamy realm where Coraline gets everything she wants instantly is an actual place, and that there is someone who is ‘real’, and is creating everything to her liking in order to convince her to stay. And there can never be anything wrong with that.

As a form of storytelling, there’s just something so solidly enjoyable about the way they’ve put all this together, both from a story point of view and getting the look of it right. There’s a solidity, a weight to the characters, even at their most spindly and wispy, that you just don’t get with computer animation alone. I’m not getting into the old school versus new school animation argument, because truth be told it’s a stupid argument, and it’s pointless, since this film meshes the two together in order to best tell its story. And presumably it was cheaper and quicker (though laborious, as stop-motion is by its very nature) to do so, since I’m guessing they didn’t want three hundred animators working on it for a couple of years to get that eyelash rendering just right.

It’s a delightful and dark story, just like the best, most resonant and most lasting of fairy tales. Of course all these kinds of stories seem like they’re entirely intended as cautionary tales, as in ‘kids, do what we tell you or horrible things will happen to you’, and sure, there’s an element of that here. But it’s not a moralistic finger wagging bore which would have the protagonist stuff things up out of selfishness and have to be rescued by some woodsman or handsome prince. She gets targeted by a malevolent creature that weaves a fiction best suited to capturing her, but it is Coraline herself who has to eventually do battle with her nemesis, save herself and save her parents.

Sure there are little convenient plot devices and mini-deus ex machinas, but at least they’ re not happening as our little lady passively looks on in horror. She is what she does, and I love her for it. Though of course my daughter is too young for something like this just yet, I’d be happy for her to watch it in a few year’s time because apart from some of the frights on offer, and some of the scary images, Coraline is a positive female lead in an inspired and dark fantasy tale, that looks tremendous (to me) even as a lot of kids would be blurting “wah, this don’t look nothing like Shrek, wah, get me some more Coke”.

Sweet relief. Henry Selick is still at the top of his game, and Neil Gaiman, you demented genius, please keep up the great work. There was only one other ‘kids’ flick that resonated with me more this year, but this is clearly still one of the best flicks of 2009.

8 times the only thing scarier than the Other Mother in all her glory is the result of my last tax return out of 10

“You know, you could stay forever, if you want to. There's one tiny thing we have to do first…” - Coraline