Sunday, February 8, 2009

Coraline -- other worlds, better worlds?

Director: Henry Selick, 2009.

Adapted from the award-winning novel by Neil Gaiman, Coraline is the first feature from Laika Studios in Portland, formerly Vinton Studios, home of the California Raisins. Nike's Phil Knight owns Laika, and his son Travis is principal animator on this stop-motion movie. As debuts go, this is a very good one and a promising sign for the studio. Perhaps Laika will develop into the Pixar of Oregon to compete with that California powerhouse.

Over the opening credits we see a doll being taken apart, its hair pulled out, its eyes removed, its stuffing extracted. Then the doll-skin is refilled with new stuffing. Blue hair is attached and a perfect pair of black buttons is selected to become its eyes. When it is complete, it is a replica of Coraline, apart from her eyes.

At the start of the film, Coraline (Dakota Fanning) and her parents are moving into an enormous pink house. Both parents are writers for gardening magazines, and they are so preoccupied with their work that Coraline is a distraction. As she explores she meets her neighbors, eccentric people who live in this same house. There are the two spinster sisters who used to be in the theater, Miss Spink (Jennifer Saunders) and Miss Forcible (Dawn French), who live with their three terriers in the basement. Then there's the Russian Mr. Bobinsky (Ian McShane), the amazing acrobat with his mouse circus. She also encounters an obnoxious neighbor boy, who won't stop talking, and his mangy black alley cat (Keith David). Wybie (Robert Bailey Jr.) tells her a spooky secret that his grandmother, the owner of the pink house, does not allow kids in the house because they will disappear forever. she gets the look-alike doll things get mysterious. Because she is bored and not allowed to go out and play in the Oregon mud, she is assigned the job of counting the windows and doors in the house. In so doing she finds one small door wall-papered over and locked. When she persuades her mom (Teri Hatcher) to open this door, there is nothing behind it but a brick wall. But that night she is drawn to this door and discovers it is a portal to a parallel reality. through the corridor she emerges in the "same" room, but things are not quite the same. This alternate pink house is beautful and decorated, not dingy and dull. Her "other parents" are attentive and devoted to her. Instead of her real dad cooking slop, her "other mother" (also Teri Hatcher) cooks feasts to please her. And, unlike her real father, her other father (John Hodgman) is a superb gardener. The only odd thing is that their eyes are buttons.

When Coraline goes to bed in this house, her room is bright and welcoming. When she awakes she is back in the real house, in her room with a cracked ceiling. She wishes she were back where she can have what she wants. So later she returns to see her other parents. In this alternate universe, the neighbors are all there, including Wybie whose mouth is sewn shut to silence him, and his cat; but here this cat can talk.

Not all as it seems in this perfect world, however. And in the second half of the film it becomes clear that this world is distorted and menacing. The other mother has an agenda for wanting Coraline to stay forever in this world. As Coraline gets caught up in her web of games and lies, she has to rely on her resourcefulness, her determination, and two friends to save herself, her parents and some lost souls.

Coraline is full of incredible imagery, with so much vibrant detail is hard to take it all in. The story has been compared to "Alice in Wonderland," what with a talking cat and a trip to a parallel world. But Coraline is much darker and scarier than Alice. Rather, it is more akin to the works of Raold Dahl. And Director Selick has worked on darker material and Dahl stories, having directed both James and the Giant Peach and The Nightmare before Christmas. Fun for both adults and older kids, this is a little scary for young children. are some stunning "set-pieces," including a scene where the other father causes a magnificent garden to emerge instantaneously and another where the two alternate spinsters perform in front of a theater full of terriers. My personal favorite is where the other world literally unravels before Coraline's eyes. As in an action thriller, she has to keep a step ahead of this unravelling to stay alive.

There are several clear issues in Coraline. The most obvious is that of wanting to live in an ideal world. In the real world people did not listen to Coraline, often mishearing her name as Caroline. She was in the way, a nuisance even to her parents. Then Coraline experienced a world where she was the center of attention, where people knew her name and wanted her to be there. But this was not the best world. Her real parents, as uninvolved as they were, really were better for her than these other parents.

As children of God, we often dream of an ideal world, one where there is no suffering, where we get our way. We can dream of our plans, where everyone knows our name, where we are the center of attention, where we are successful. We think this would be a far better world for us than the one we inhabit. But our "real father" in heaven knows us and our needs far better than we do. (Matt. 6:32, 10:30). Even if he sometimes seems uninvolved, he is always there for us and his plan is far better than ours; it is a perfect plan (Jer. 29:11). We just don't always recognize this on this side of eternity. Unlike Coraline, who came to see things for what they were, we must take this on faith (Heb. 11:6).

A related lesson comes from Wybie, the young neighbor. Nickamed "YB" for "Why Born?," he was branded with this sense of meaninglessness. But in this dark tale he had a purpose, and it comes to pass. Sometimes we can give ourselves this moniker. Why were we born? What is the point of our lives? But God is not a capricious being, and those he creates he creates with a purpose (Eph. 2:10). We may not know what his plans are, but we can be sure that he does have a plan for our lives. Like Esther in the Old Testament who God placed in the Persian palace for a particular action at a particular time, who knows but for what moment we were made (Est. 4:14). And when that moment comes, our purpose, our very destiny will stare us in the face., an ethical warning emerges from Coraline. Just as the "other mother" looked so caring and loving but turned out to be creepy and evil, so there are those in our real world who are not what they seem. Jesus told his disciples to beware of wolves in sheep's clothing (Matt. 7:15). There are people who will pretend to be what they are not simply to use us, to deceive us, to destroy us. We may not recognize them instantly, but if we are on the alert, we will know them by their fruit (Matt. 7:16). As Coraline came to see what her other mother was by the fruit of her desires, so we can see those who do not have our interests at heart by their fruit. How is your ability to judge fruit?

Copyright ©2009, Martin Baggs


  1. I saw this movie on Friday. I thought it was very intrusting. Yes it is a little bit darker than Alice. Great review.


  2. Martin! We should've seen this together! What the--?

  3. I saw this movie once and I loved it! You know what Henery Skelick the directer of the "Nightmare before Christmas" directed "Coraline". He is the master of threader, to me. I love his movies! NO MATTER WHAT!
    Also Tim Burtons!
    Coraline was a great story to me, NOW a wonderful dark film.

  4. Martin? do you know id this movie is on DVD? Thanks!