Fairy Tales are more than true, not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten.
--G. K. Chesterton, used by Gaiman as an epigram for Coraline

Coraline discovered the door a little while after they moved into the house.
--opening sentence, page one.

A little girl, frustrated with her mundane existence, walks through a mysterious door and into an alternate version of her house, where things are more than slightly askew. Her grotesque "other" mother who lives there has buttons for eyes, and wants to sew similar ones onto Coraline and keep the child there forever. And that's just the start; this mysterious woman has far more monstrous secrets. She has kidnapped Coraline's parents, and her closet contains the souls of other lost children who have fallen into her spidery clutches. With the help of a talking cat, Coraline must outwit one of the most diabolical villains in the history of children's literature.

Neil Gaiman wrote this novella for his children-- in particular, his daughter Holly, whom he calls "the kind of kid who makes Wednesday Addams look cheerful" (quoted in Mahtadie). Doubtless they loved it. Doubtless other, older children will, too. But, for a young person's book, Coraline is surprisingly macabre and frightening. Granted, older fairy tales were often pretty grim; we're no longer used to children's stories being quite so creepy. Consequently, not all parents will find this suitable for their wee ones. And never mind the children; the fate of the villain's creations and the plottings of her severed hand will haunt any number of adult readers.

Personally, I like the fact that Gaiman doesn't soften the book too much, despite his audience. Coraline faces a seductively deceptive and ultimately very nasty adversary. Most Walt Disney villains would recoil from this creature in horror. A particularly clever young girl, however, proves more than her equal. This fact will obviously appeal to children.

The protagonist of many a children's book has a whimsical sidekick to help out. Gaiman has given Coraline a talking cat who retains the essential nature of a feline. Tiny animals get pounced upon; a rat gets decapitated. And when the going gets tough, it starts eyeing the exits. Children already know these things about cats, if they know a cat. They also know, or ought to be made aware, that nasty people exist in the world, and these people often appear quite appealing at first. I prefer Gaiman's approach of including essentially accurate, faerie equivalents of such things to the approach of many turn-of-the-millennium children's movies, which soften the moral edges, and pander to their audience with, say, an effluence of fart jokes.

While I don't share Diana Wynne Jones' much-quoted opinion that Coraline will replace Alice in Wonderland, this book ranks among the best children's stories I've read. It recalls Roald Dahl, and Gaiman's effort is at least as good as any of Dahl's. The book also boasts illustrations by David McKean, which resemble the pictures found in many older children's books.

Gaiman has written novels, teleplays, short stories, poetry, and comics, and he has impressed audiences of each genre. It's not surprising that he should do equally well with a children's novella. In 2003, Coraline won the Hugo for Best Novella and the Locus for Best Young Adult Novel.

Neil Gaiman. Coraline. New York: HarperCollins, 2002.

Luma Mahtadie. "Not just another comic book hero," The Globe and Mail. Sept. 4, 2003. R3.

Portions of this node appear in my review of Coraline at http://www.Bureau42.com.
I tried to arrange to go see Coraline with a friend, but our schedules kept failing to knit (he has twins). So after a particularly Monday, I hied myself off - and discovered that in fact my local theater was playing Coraline in 3D. Now, I haven't seen a 3D movie since a 'Virtual Reality' expo back in 1993 or thereabouts, which used LCD shutter glasses synced by IR and made my head hurt. But I knew that the director of Coraline had directed The Nightmare Before Christmas, and since I loved the look of that movie, I gritted my teeth and paid the fare.

This new version ("Real3D!!!" shrieked the glasses, wrapped in pretend-clean plastic) doesn't need syncing. Apparently it's all done with polarization as far as I can tell. In any case, after a few previews, a message went up on the screen: "Please put on your 3D glasses now!"

And then we got...

...more previews.

The first preview after the glasses note was for the upcoming Pixar film Up. And...and...holy jackrabbit damn, it's...it's...

...It's in 3D. And my eyes don't feel weird, and my head doesn't hurt, and wow, that really looks 3D.

The new system? Yeah, it works. It still looks like one of those really cool dioramas, but there's now infinite layers of depth instead of 'near' and 'far' - and it shows. Objects have volume.

So after we all finished going "oooooooohhh...shiny..." in unison (and we did), the film opened.

As Timeshredder mentions, this isn't really just a kid's film. The opening montage is a set of inhuman and disembodied (because of point of view) hands taking a stuffed doll with button eyes, slicing it open, snipping off the eyes while someone hums happily, emptying it of stuffing and then turning it inside out before replacing its outers and sending it floating back out the window.


So on to the movie. I haven't read the book. I will say that Timeshredder, his review of the book, said a lot of things the movie made me want to say - it feels like Gaiman has taken several quite familiar fairy tales, snipped out good bits from each, sewn them together into a Frankendoll of a story, turned them inside out...and then sewed the familiar bits back on. If I had to pick a word that describes Coraline, it would be...sorta.

There is a plucky young heroine. Sorta. There are the bad parents. Sorta. There is a magic portal. Sorta. There is a different world behind the glass, Alice. Sorta.

And so on.

It's not a bad thing. It's a fairly wonderful marriage of ancient fairy tale memes and modern sensibilities. Worlds don't simply go dark, they de-rez, even though they look like everyone's image of the Ancient Woods set. There's a cat, but...he's not really a cat. Well, he is, but he doesn't act like one. And his sorta obeys...rules.

Coraline, in fact, felt an awful lot like Neil Gaiman - or maybe the filmmakers - had played Infocom games, and we were privileged to share the mental pictures of one or more of the team, who have really vivid imaginations. The situations are eerie, familiar, logical, and completely fantastic all at once.

The 3D was really, really good - to the point where I kept forgetting it was in 3D. There were two reasons for this; i think some scenes were still flat, but really, I just kept accepting it and moving on, and having to pull off the glasses for a second and then re-don them to go "Whoa!" all over again. I think that the wonders of computer animation are a hindrance, here - we're so used to animated things behaving in sorta real ways that the wonders of 3D movies made with physical animation (models, dolls, clay, lead, wood, buttons) can sometimes pass us right by unless we're careful.

There is, of course, a morality play at the heart of Coraline, and it's one we're very very familiar with. But the play's the thing, and it makes the ride all fresh and new.


The Custodian strongly recommends you see Coraline 3D (which is how it's listed in the movie directories, as a separate title) - but see it any way you can if you like talking to the kid in you while using adult words.

Coraline (2009)
Written by Neil Gaiman
Directed by Henry Selick

Voice Acting:

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