(Reviewed February 5, 2009, by James Dawson)
(8/2/12 Note: This is an expanded version of my original review that appeared when the movie was released. I have appended a lot of information about differences between the book and movie that had to be cut for space reasons when this piece appeared on another website.)
Director/screenwriter Henry Selick's animated adaptation of Neil Gaiman's award-winning children's novel is undeniably beautiful but ultimately frustrating. Selick has made so many small and not-so-small changes to the original story that some of its spirit gets lost amid the (admittedly gorgeous) eye-candy.
In the book, Coraline (Dakota Fanning) is a lonely girl who is smart, resourceful, and brave enough to outwit an evil "Other Mother" (Teri Hatcher) who lives through a magic doorway. But in the movie, a neighbor boy named Wybie (Robert Bailey Jr.) who does not even appear in the book ends up delivering the coup de grace that defeats the creature. So much for female empowerment.
What's unfortunate is that the movie itself ends up having a lot in common with the warped-reality characters Coraline meets on the other side of the doorway. Everything she encounters there is recognizable and, at first, visually appealing. Yet none of it turns out to be as good as what the copies were created to resemble.
The same could be said about the story's transition from page to screen. Best example: In the book's scariest and most disturbing scene, a monstrous version of Coraline's father (John Hodgman) unsucessfully tries to stop himself from attacking her in a dark, narrow cellar. He is described as "pale and swollen like a grub, with thin, sticklike arms and feet. (He) had almost no features on its face, which had puffed and swollen like risen bread dough."
In the movie, that terrifying scene has been transformed into one that takes place in a fantabulously colorful flower garden, with a cartoonish version of dad riding a mechanical praying mantis. It's the difference between Guillermo del Toro's eerily creepy "Pan's Labyrinth" and Walt Disney's odd but unthreatening "Alice in Wonderland."
In the movie, but not in the book, the evil "Other Mother" spies on children in the real world by using eavesdropping dolls. (Such dolls do not exist in the book.) That's not a bad new idea in itself, but it is clumsily employed. Instead of Coraline finding her "Little Me" doll where she lives, a neighbor boy brings it over from his grandmother's house.
Why the story's setting has been shifted from evocative England to unexciting Oregon for the movie is as big a mystery as why a character named Mr. Bobo becomes Mr. Bobinsky (Ian McShane), or why the time of year has been switched from summer vacation to (of all things) Presidents Day. Tweaks like these seem annoyingly arbitrary. Yes, a book is a book and a movie is a movie, but changes made for no good reason seem intentionally disrespectful to the original novel.
All of Selick's narrative wrongheadedness sure looks good, though. The characters are puppet-style figures, painstakingly moved and photographed one frame at a time to simulate motion (a la Selick's "James and the Giant Peach" and "The Nightmare Before Christmas). The extremely expressive Coraline figure only slightly resembles the book's illustrations, but that's not a problem. Selick and voice actor Fanning make her seem charmingly real.
Sometimes, though, Selick's seemingly unrestrained creativity presents a problem. "Coraline" the book is about a bored but normal girl from the real world who visits a bizarre fantasy reality. That premise is defeated here by the fact that her "real world" neighbors already look bizarrely otherworldly. Mr. Bobinsky, for example, has grey-blue skin and freakishly unnatural anatomy. That doesn't leave a lot of room for further "weirding up" of his appearance in the other world.
One character who survives the transition from page to screen with no loss of personality or style is a nameless black cat, voiced with imperious cool by actor Keith David.
Even Selick apparently knows that you just don't mess with a cat.
At the "Coraline" press junket, I had a chance to ask the incredibly friendly Gaiman how he felt about Selick's alterations, and he seemed completely happy with them. Considering that Selick's biggest change subverted the entire theme of Gaiman's book—that a smart, brave and resourceful little girl could escape a dilemma all by herself, without the help of the neighbor boy Selick invented for the movie—Gaiman's opinion was baffling.
Other changes Selick made fall into what I call the "Pop. 1280" category. "Pop. 1280" (which refers to a small town's population) is a Jim Thompson crime novel that was the source material for director Bertrand Tavernier's movie "Coup de Torchon (Clean Slate)." In addition to setting and plot changes, Tavernier went so far as to include a shot of a road sign that listed a population number different from the one in Thompson's book title. Can you say "arrogantly insulting?"
In the same way, the fact that Selick would do things like change the name of Coraline's neighbor Mr. Bobo to Mr. Bobinsky, as mentioned above, seems annoyingly arbitrary.
The list below of other differences between the "Coraline" book and movie is far from complete, but indicates how dissimilar the two are:
The neighbor boy Wybie's grandmother does not appear in the book.
Coraline's mother does not wear a whiplash collar in the book.
We never know what sort of writers Coraline's parents are in the book.
The book's "Other Mother" never looks as deceptively wholesome as she does in the movie. When Coraline first sees her in the book, the "Other Mother" is described as having skin as white as paper and fingers that are too long. Later in the book, her hair is described as resembling plants under the sea and lazy snakes wriggling on a warm day.
Coraline is asked to sew buttons on her eyes the first time she visits the other world in the book. She is not asked to do this until her third trip there in the movie.
In the book, Coraline physically returns to the real world each time through a physical doorway. In the movie, she returns by falling asleep and waking up at home.
Coraline only makes two trips to the other world in the book. Her parents become trapped in a mirror in the real world after she makes her first trip.
Coraline's real family does not collect snow globes in the book (as they do in the movie). That is why seeing a snow globe on her house's mantle in the other world strikes her as unusual. This becomes important to the conclusion, and makes more sense in the book than in the movie.
The rats in the other world always are rats (not rats disguised as cute jumping mice, as they are in the movie). Things like this made the book creepier than the movie.
In the book, the spirits of dead children ask Coraline to find their souls. In the movie, they ask her to find their eyes.
Coraline's outdoor picnic dream scene at end of the book has been replaced by one that takes place in a weird limbo with a background resembling Van Gogh's "Starry Night."
I could go on and on. Look, I know there are those who say "the book is the book and the movie is the movie," and that artistic allowances should be made for adaptations. But when the source material is a bestselling contemporary classic like "Coraline," it seems ridiculous and stupid to alter a story that worked just fine as it was.
Having said all of that, the movie is undeniably gorgeous, with incredibly creative stop-motion animation. That's why I gave it a "B-" despite all of the problems I had with the script.
Back Row Reviews Grade: B-