Alice in Freudland: 'Coraline' travels a wondrous, dark journey that's definitely not for little ones

By Ty Burr
Globe Staff / February 6, 2009
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Good news for family psychiatrists across the land: "Coraline" is opening today, which means on Monday they'll have a whole new clientele of traumatized young children whose parents saw the PG rating and thought this was the latest "Kung Fu Panda."

It is not. A darkly invigorating stop-motion tour down the rabbit hole of childhood anxieties, "Coraline" is a movie only Wednesday Addams could love. Well, Wednesday and anyone who loves her; if you have a 10-and-up who's drawn to alt-comics, smart books, dark clothing, and general pop culture subversion, the movie will be his or her Wonderland. (That age group includes grown-ups, of course.)

Still, allow me to repeat: Do not take a 5-year-old to "Coraline" unless your health plan covers therapy. Henry Selick, the mad-genius puppetmaster behind "Tim Burton's The Nightmare Before Christmas" and "James and the Giant Peach," has brought Neil Gaiman's 2002 cult novella to the screen with almost all its playful psychodrama intact. This is "The Corpse Bride" with teeth, Bruno Bettelheim retooled for the multiplex, a nightmare of daft and creative consequence.

I really liked it.

Coraline (voiced by Dakota Fanning) is an only child whose parents, writers both, have moved her to a creepy old multifamily house in the middle of nowhere. Flat-headed, blue-haired, sardonic without being a pill about it, the girl is bored, and mother (Teri Hatcher) and father (John Hodgman) keep shunting her aside until they can meet their deadlines. Which, as any writer will tell you, is never.

Guided by a shaggy-haired neighbor boy (a character not in the book, voiced by Robert Bailey Jr.), Coraline discovers a secret tunnel behind a bricked-up door; it quivers like an expectant intestine. This leads not, as you might think, to John Malkovich's head but to a place even stranger: a parallel universe in which her parents are lovely and attentive, flowers talk, and everyone has buttons for eyes. Sounds charming but a sense of unease persists, especially when the Other Mother (Hatcher again) offers Coraline a deal. Sew buttons on your eyes and you can live with us forever.

Gaiman (who last month won a Newbery Award for 2008's "The Graveyard Book") knows exactly what he's about with this fusion of Lewis Carroll and Sigmund Freud, and Selick brings it into the mainstream without sanding off too many of the book's eccentricities. Coraline's neighbors are a delightfully baroque crew in and out of the Otherworld: a spindly Russian acrobat (Ian McShane); two dotty, round actresses (Jennifer Saunders and Dawn French) with an army of stuffed Scotties; a cat that speaks in the superior tones of Keith David.

I only wish Fanning and Hatcher had brought more individuality to their vocal performances. The actresses are fine but only fine, and their broad, earnest nonregional accents are the closest "Coraline" comes to normal. At the same time, neither Fanning nor Hatcher really has to bring the funk, since the characters do it for them.

Scratch its colorful loop-de-loop surface, and the story is both elemental and rare: an epic psychic battle between a mother and her daughter for acceptance, recognition, and space. The Other Mother is eventually revealed to Coraline (and us) as the evil harridan all teenage girls know their moms to be right after they've slammed the bedroom door, but there's a pathos to the older woman's neediness that's unexpectedly moving. Better, Coraline's real mother is proved to be just that: real, flawed, loving.

(Where's Dad in all this? He's a kindhearted doofus, like so many fathers in films and on TV. Since the main drama is between Coraline and her mom, though, he's forgiven, and, anyway, how can you dislike a character who opens his mouth and sings in the voice of John Linnell of They Might Be Giants?)

Selick has opened Gaiman's prose up and daubed it with fantastical hues and skewed visual ideas; the movie's not as complete a vision as "James and the Giant Peach," but it keeps you wondering what's coming around the corner next. "Coraline" indulges us with the sort of visual razzle-dazzle modern family entertainments are required to have, like a funny and surreal production number for the aging actresses (and their Scotties). Yet because the technique here is stop-motion clay animation - an old-world, hands-on craft with none of the eerie smoothness of computer rendering - the film feels warm and fussed-over. It's the product of humans instead of machines. Like its heroine and like its audience, it has a soul.

(A final note: "Coraline" is being released in selected theaters in 3-D. Having screened that version, I'm pleased to say that very few things are tossed, skimmed, poked, or spewed out at the audience, and that, in general, the 3-D technology is used to give shape to the film's world rather than assault us with it. The result is a gentle dimensionality that compliments the film's dark and spiky sense of child's play.)

Ty Burr can be reached at

CORALINE Directed by: Henry Selick

Written by: Selick, based on the book by Neil Gaiman

Starring: the voices of Dakota Fanning, Teri Hatcher

At: Boston Common, Fenway, suburbs

Running time: 100 minutes

Rated: PG (thematic elements, scary images, some language and suggestive humor)

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