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Happy birthday? Coraline’s Coraline eyes a cake.

Through the Looking Glass

By Laura Leon


Directed by Henry Selick


To call Coraline a children’s movie is like calling The Wizard of Oz a film about tornados. And yet, when I’ve recommended this stunning movie to people—which I’ve done a lot since seeing it a few days ago—every one of them has responded with a bewildered “You mean the kids’ film?”

Based on an internationally popular book by Neil Gaiman, Coraline is the story of a little girl’s adventures in an alternate universe, which at first seems all sunshine and ice cream, but becomes a horrific embodiment of being careful what one wishes for. Coraline Jones (Dakota Fanning) has just moved with her horticulture-journalist parents (Teri Hatcher and John Hodgman) to grim and gray Ashland, Ore., where they rent out part of the Pink Palace, a repository for a motley crew of inhabitants. Tellingly, Mom and Dad are the types of workaholics who don’t practice what they preach, or, in this case, type: They hate dirt and the outdoors. Bored after visits with circus strongman Mr. “the Amazing!” Bobinsky (Ian McShane) and the long-retired, er, actresses Miss Spink (Jennifer Saunders) and Miss Forcible (Dawn French), Coraline investigates her new digs. This is how she comes upon a little door, wallpapered over, which reveals a mysterious passageway to said alternate universe. There she finds her Other Mother and Other Father, waiting to feed her delicious treats and to play games. “I never knew I had an Other Mother,” ponders Coraline, to which she receives the haunting reply, “Well, sweetie, everybody does!”

Coraline is drawn to the magic beyond the trap door, but before long, things take a turn for the decidedly weird. It’s bad enough that the Other Parents have buttons for eyes, but when they expect Coraline to exchange her own vision for the same, the little girl decides home wasn’t so bad after all. Too bad she’s trapped, and the closest thing she has to a friend, Wybie (Robert Bailey Jr.), has been tortured and maimed (by the Other Mother), and basically rendered useless. Coraline’s efforts to save herself makes for thrilling viewing, immeasurably enhanced by the wondrous mix of stop motion and 3-D.

Who knew that 3-D could actually embellish an already winning story, and not just be a weird gimmick or toy that the studio honchos drag out on occasion, just because they can?

Coraline is not for the very young, not just because of its macabre nature, but because the images of sewing needles coming right out of the screen toward your solar plexus, or of angel dogs floating right through you, might be too disconcerting. Director Henry Selick, who worked visual wonders with earlier films like The Nightmare Before Christmas and James and the Giant Peach, outdoes himself, and our wildest dreams, rendering the oldest, most cynical audience members gape-mouthed in wonderment. A part of me was disturbed that the harbinger of doom and disaster is the Other Mother, whereas the Other Father is innately useless and benign, but isn’t that the way with most classic fairy tales? To overanalyze this conceit is, in my opinion, to miss the grandeur and also the emotional heart of Coraline, and this is a movie that truly should not be missed.

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