A few days ago I had tea with an old friend, and then we went to see Coraline at the Regal Cinemas Theater at Union Square. (This is, I have to say, a great way to see movies.) It was a good film, but a frustrating one, too, and I’ve spent some time over the last few days trying to figure out what so bothered me about it. I went out and bought Neil Gaiman’s book (which I read a few years ago but didn’t properly remember), and after finishing it this morning I realized that it threw several of the problems with the movie into sharp focus.
For the unfamiliar: Coraline (the film and the novella) is about a young girl who discovers a mysterious door in her new house. Late one night, the titular heroine goes through the door and discovers a mirror version of her house, complete with mirror versions of her parents – her “other father” and her “other mother”, both of whom have buttons for eyes. The latter of these turns out to be an evil, spiderlike creature, who has lured Coraline to the mirror-world for unclear but certainly nefarious reasons.
The film looks amazing. I’m not generally a big fan of 3D movies – the older technology simply didn’t work for me, and the newer technology gives me headaches – but this is hands-down the best application of the tecnique that I’ve ever seen. (Granted, the last film I saw in 3D was Beowulf, which had a whole host of problems unrelated to its dimensionality.) But even on a regular screen this film would look dazzling; rarely has stop-motion film looked so rich and beautiful.
Coraline is also probably the strangest film ever given wide release. Henry Selick, who adapted and directed the film, is indeed the man responsible for The Nightmare Before Christmas and James and the Giant Peach – but he also directed Monkeybone, a film that Brendan Fraser (who is showing up a lot here recently) called “the most expensive art film of all time”. While Focus Films has understandably been downplaying that particular project in its marketing (“From the director of Monkeybone!” isn’t exactly guarenteed to fill seats), Coraline does share Monkeybone’s manic, madcap disregard for reality as we know it.
But it’s in the adaptation that Coraline runs into trouble. The novella was about an extraordinary young girl who discovers a mirror world behind a door. The film is about a young girl who discovers an extraordinary mirror world behind a door. Selick seems to have assumed – wrongly – that the most interesting thing about the book was the spectacle of the mirror world, and his unrelenting focus on this leaves Coraline (the character) in shreds. In the book, she’s charming and smart and determined to do the right thing, no matter how scared she is. In the movie, she’s just kind of irritating. She wanders from place to place in almost a daze; she has almost no impact on the plot at all. She’s all pluck and no character. And to pour salt on the wound, Selick has taken her big triumph – the veritable climax of the book – and given it instead to her next-door neighbor, a character who did not exist in the book.
These are no small flaws; indeed, they are the difference between a film that is great and a film that is merely impressive. The individual parts of Coraline are flawless (the score is another aspect that deserves mention), but the sum of them is oddly bland. When we left the theater my friend turned to me and said, “It was good, wasn’t it?” But then she stopped, and looked away and sort of frowned. “But you know, it wasn’t as good as I thought it was going to be,” she said. And that’s the way I felt about it, too: enjoyable; impressive; but never as good as I wanted it to be, and if I had the choice between spending two hours watching the movie and spending two hours reading the book, I know which I’d choose every time.