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29 May 2009

Review: Coraline – On Wednesday night, my wife and I saw the stop-motion animation film Coraline. The book on which this film is based was written by Neil Gaiman, whom I knew from his novel Anansi Boys. I haven’t read anything else by him, but I loved Anansi Boys, which asks the question: what if the trickster god Anansi had kids, and they lived in modern times? I was hooked by the fact that it is essentially a modern fictional treatment of the mythical trickster figure—I remember picking up the book in Strand just on the title alone, before I had any real idea of who Gaiman was—but the book ended up exceeding my expectations. I am a sucker for folklore and fantasy worked into realistic settings, and Anansi Boys does this beautifully.

“I got a kick out of seeing all the folkloric tropes and motifs cropping up throughout the story.”

When I first heard about Coraline, and heard that it was based on a Gaiman book, I knew I wanted to see it. We saw advertisements for it here and there, but the marketing was definitely not as heavy as big hitters like Star Trek or Terminator Salvation. We both were certain that it was scheduled to open in the beginning of June, but apparently we were wrong—Hyunjin was online on Monday, checking times for another film, when she saw that Coraline was already out. In fact, it had opened last Thursday. She looked at the times and saw that most of the showings were dubbed and during the day, indicating that they were targeted at children. The only showing we could find in the evening that had subtitles was last night, and we had to travel all the way down to Apgujeong to see it (a little less than an hour away by public transportation—which actually isn’t that bad by Seoul standards). And, from what we could tell, last night’s showing was the last evening showing—we almost ended up missing Coraline entirely, which would have been a tragedy.

There are a lot of things going through my head right now, so this entry is not going to be simply a review. I also want to talk a little about children’s entertainment in general. I will start out with my thoughts on the film, though (I won’t be avoiding spoilers, as I’m going to assume that everyone who wanted to see this film has already seen it, but I also won’t be deliberately spoiling anything).

Although it’s not really that important, I suppose I should mention that the film was in 3D. I can’t remember the last time I saw a film in 3D, but I do know that the art form has progressed much since then, at least with this film. 3D films used to be about things flying out at the audience, cheap gimmicks designed to provoke a reaction. Coraline did have a few of these moments (most noticeably a sewing needle at the beginning of the film), but they were few and far between, and after a while I just forgot about the 3D—it was part of the film, rather than a tacked-on gimmick. I suppose the best way to describe the use of 3D in this film is to say that it gave the scenes depth. It felt like you were looking into a diorama—a living, breathing, and gorgeously decorated diorama.

OK, with the 3D out of the way, let’s dive into the film itself. It’s apparent from the very start of the film that we aren’t really dealing with folklore and fantasy woven into a realistic setting, but more of a straight fairy tale/folktale set in modern times. The fact that it is stop-motion animation helps to create this atmosphere; among other things, we have caricatures of characters who could never physically exist in real life. But I’m a sucker for good stop-motion animation, too, and I was immediately drawn in.

The story itself is fairly straightforward: a little girl moves into a strange house and discovers a doorway that leads to a seemingly identical house populated by what seem to be her parents. Except for the tiny little fact that they have buttons instead of eyes. Oh, and the fact that, while her real parents are boring and work-obsessed and don’t have time for their little girl, these “other” parents are awesome, with Other Mother baking all of Coraline’s favorite foods and Other Father writing songs and building a garden for Coraline. It is every kid’s dream come true, but Coraline soon discovers that everything is not as it seems, and the price to pay for staying in this world is replacing her eyes with buttons.

Like I said, the story is a standard fairy tale, but for me that is a big plus. Being an oral literature/folklore major, I got a kick out of seeing all the folkloric tropes and motifs cropping up throughout the story. We have the evil witch who creates a perfect world to ensnare young children, the mystical crones who give the heroine a magical item to help her on her quest, the animal who acts as the heroine’s companion and helper (here a cat, an animal that has often been associated with mysticism), the quest to free lost souls entrapped by the witch, the high-stakes game with the villain, the law of threes in the three challenges put to the hero... I could go on, but that should give you an idea of what I mean. Half of the fun is in recognizing these elements, and the other half is in seeing what interesting twist the raconteur puts on them. For example, I thought the button/eye symbolism was great—the eyes have longed been used as symbols for the soul, and the buttons fit in perfectly with the doll motif. The “old crones,” really two retired actresses, are humorous, bumbling foils—they couldn’t even agree on the function of the magical item they bestowed on the heroine.

I could continue with this analysis of common folklore motifs in Coraline, but this would probably interest only me, so I will move on to the visual elements of the film. And let’s face it—one of the reasons we go to see animated films is to see fantastic characters and scenery that can’t be found in real life (at least, that’s one of the reasons that I go to see animated films). Coraline does not disappoint here either. The scenery is atmospheric: moodily glum in the real world and colorful and brilliant in the other world. The characters are also a delight to watch—I particularly enjoyed the father and his ridiculously long neck, bent like a submarine periscope. The bulbous Mr. B was also a treat, his corpulent form belying a surprising agility. In a word, it was the kind of delightful visuals I have come to expect from top-end stop-motion animation.

I enjoyed it completely, and so did Hyunjin. I do remember thinking, though, as I watched the film, that it might be too scary for young children. It was obvious that the film was being marketed primarily toward children, but I had to wonder if that was the right move. The film certainly has a playful atmosphere, but there are scenes that I could see easily causing nightmares. We don’t have any children, but I did think that I probably wouldn’t take kids to see it if we did have any.

Later on, though, I thought about it some more, and I began to wonder if it really was too scary for children. Again, we don’t have any children, so my thoughts on the subject are academic, but I can’t help wondering if I am not underestimating the capacity of children to handle this sort of thing. Thinking back to my own childhood, I can remember very distinctly having a picture book of fairy tales that was rife with trolls, goblins, and ogres, all threatening to boil little children and eat them. I read quite a bit in the way of those types of tales when I was young. Were they scary? They certainly were—but they were delicious at the same time, and I devoured them.

But those were just books, right? Just words on paper. Coraline on the other hand, is very real and very visual. Well, you probably know what I’m going to say about that—that the imagination is more powerful than any film can ever be. No matter how skillfully a book is adapted for the silver screen, it is always going to lose something, because words on paper are open to the wildest images your mind can conjure, while a film is only one person’s interpretation of those words, shutting out all other possible interpretations. The books I read as a child were just as alive to me, if not more, than any film I have ever seen.

Did I have nightmares about those gruesome and frightening books I read? I sure did—and I had nightmares about everything else, too. The stories didn’t cause the nightmares, they were just fodder for them. My worst nightmares usually involved faceless figures and the inability to move, and had nothing to do with those stories. So, like I said, this discussion is largely academic, but I think if I did have kids, I would take them to see Coraline. They would, of course, have to be of a certain age, but if they’re old enough to go to the cinema in general, I think they would be old enough to see Coraline.

I could say a lot more on the subject of fairy tales and children’s stories, and perhaps at a later date I will, but for now I think I’ll wrap this up and get it online. At any other time I think I would probably have written more, but time is short these days, and better a shorter entry than no entry at all.

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