Oh Coraline, Where Is Your Dark and Lovely Mind?
Over the holidays, I had a chance to read Neil Gaiman’s Coraline, a 162-page Gothic fairy tale for younger readers, which I gave to my 11-year-old nephew as a Christmas present. (He knew the story already, and was a bit more interested in Wii Sports.) Like all good yarns, but especially those of a haunting variety written by literary authors, it is engrossing from page one and wickedly inventive. So why I am so unenthusiastic about the trailers I’ve seen for Henry Selick’s stop-motion-animated adaptation, due in February from Focus Features?
First, some context: Gaiman is the author of many acclaimed novels, including Neverwhere and American Gods, as well as the celebrated graphic novel The Sandman, which is one of the few comic-book series I followed as a younger adult, for no other reason than to gauge where the author’s vivid, mythopoetic imagination would lead next. In 2005, Gaiman collaborated with Dave McKean on a feature film, MirrorMask, based on his screenplay about a teenage girl attempting to save a fantasy kingdom from destruction.
Quest novels and adventure stories come in many varieties, and Gaiman, a smart, sinister tale-weaver, has mastered more than a few. Coraline concerns a bored, solitary British girl who, after moving into a creaky old house with her not-so-perfect and not-very-attentive parents, finds an old wooden door in the drawing room that leads to an alternate world mirroring her own. There, her “other mother” and “other father” are a lot more fun and doting, and the food tastes better, too. The only difference is … they have black buttons for eyes. And they want her to stay with them. Forever.
Given the story’s spooky atmosphere, Selick is not a bad choice for the job. He’s best known for directing the animated Tim Burton story, The Nightmare Before Christmas, as well as James and the Giant Peach, and Coraline is reportedly the biggest stop-motion production anyone has ever undertaken. But my big quibble is this: the director has transposed a quintessentially British fable, part C.S. Lewis and part Horace Walpole, about eldritch country estates, tea-leaf-reading retirees, and a specially European legacy of storybook wickedness and black magic to a more accessible, all-American context.
The book is creepy, disquieting, just a wee bit anachronistic, and begs for a live-action (or Púca Puppets) treatment with a grey-scaled color palette. (You see: I live in a fantasy world, too.) In the new film, Coraline is a spunky, blue-haired Ramona look-alike voiced by the precocious Dakota Fanning; the tone is deliberately lighter and more playful. (Bewitched toys in the novel merely twitter and scuttle quickly out of sight, which makes them eerie—they don’t crack wise for cheap comic effect.) Too bad Selick’s commercial instincts appear to have eclipsed Gaiman’s eccentric command of the Gothic idiom, in which the protagonist’s journey is continually overshadowed by a true sense of dread and the unknown. Better the BBC, I think, than Corpse Bride’s bottom-line investors.
These days, kids have plenty of funny-bone-tickling Toy Stories and mindless Monkeybones to muck about with at the box office. What might be more fun (and more edifying) for imaginative young minds, after all the singing rats and fishes are put to bed, is a Grimm new world to explore, with the house lights down and nary a parent in sight.