One of the hallmarks of the fiction of Neil Gaiman has been a proficient ability to utilize and reinvent mythology and familiar fantasy themes.
Gaiman proved his mastery of the genre beyond all measure with his Sandman series of comic books. The epic story of the King of Dreams managed to incorporate myths from around the world, from Shakespeare to the Arabian Nights to Japanese folklore. He gained further prominence when he took his fantasy skills to writing novels. His American Gods explored ancient gods, weakened from no longer having worshippers, who exist in modern day America.
In Coraline, Gaiman riffs on a different fantasy tradition: the child entering the magical alternate world. It's a genre we've come to know all too well with Alice in Wonderland, Peter Pan, The Wizard of Oz, and The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe. In Gaiman's hands he gives the familiar story a dark, playful twist.
And because of that it's hard to think of a better director suited to create a stop-motion film adaptation of the book than Henry Selick, director of "The Nightmare Before Christmas."
Coraline Jones (voice of Dakota Fanning) is pretty much your standard 11-year-old who ends up stumbling into a magical fantasy land. She's bright, curious, independent and ready for adventure. She also shares the trait of her predecessors of Alice, Wendy, and Dorothy in that she's bored by the mundane world around her. Coraline's parents (voiced by Teri Hatcher and John Hodgman) have just moved with her to The Pink Palace, an old house out in the Oregon countryside that has been split into several apartments. Since her parents are busying finishing up their gardening catalog they're writing Coraline proceeds to explore the old house and its surroundings.
Of course the Pink Palace's other residents are strange-looking eccentrics. In the top apartment is Mr. Bobinsky (Ian McShane,) a Russian circus performer who's always contorting his body in strange shapes and leaping around the roof of the house. Despite the quality of his performance I couldn't buy McShane in the role. His unforgettable turn as Al Swearengen in "Deadwood" means I'll never be able to see him as anyone else. Downstairs Coraline encounters Miss Forcible (Dawn French) and Miss Spink (Jennifer Saunders,) two retired actresses with a collection of stuffed dogs. Coraline also begins a friendship with Wybie (Robert Bailey, Jr.,) a somewhat annoying little boy who lives nearby and whose grandmother has warned him to stay away from the Pink Palace.
Coraline will discover why Wybie was not allowed in the Pink Palace when she comes across a tiny door sealed behind a piece of furniture in one of the rooms of their apartment. When she first opens it she finds only a brick wall. Later, though, when she looks again she finds a tunnel that leads into a new, more exciting version of her world. In a mirror version of the house she meets her Other Mother and Other Father who lavish her with attention, gifts, and tasty food. In this new world there are better versions of Mr. Bobinsky, Miss Forcible, and Miss Spink who perform amazing shows for her.
The only suspicion Coraline has against her Other Mother and this better world is that everyone there has buttons instead of eyes. This clue will gradually lead Coraline into an adventure which will affirm such lessons as "be careful what you wish for" and "if it's too good to be true it probably is."
As with many animated pictures the primary level one is likely to appreciate the film is the visual. The images and animation created by Selick's team are stunning, made all the more overwhelming since we know they were not produced with computers. Gaiman's story is an ideal skeleton to hold the organ of each animated set piece.
While the film soars high on its visuals (certainly A level,) and features a classic story, it falters principally in its characters who are not developed to an entirely satisfactory degree. While I sympathize with Coraline she doesn't really stand out too much as a character. Further the supporting characters (parents, kooky neighbors, the sidekick Wybie) are only marginally developed.
This isn't as big of a problem as it could be. Throughout most of the film I'm too dazzled by the beauty of the animation that I'm not caring very much that the characters are more prop than people.
With "Coraline" and 2007's "Stardust," Gaiman's at two for two with successful film adaptations of his work. And there are just plenty of promising Gaiman novels, comics, and short stories squealing "Film me! Film me!" Currently it appears the next in line is the graphic novel "Death: The High Cost of Living." If the film does actually get made then its likely to be a smash resulting in a steady flow of Gaiman adaptations. One can only hope.