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Wednesday, Feb. 4, 2009 12:44 am

Fairy tale conventions and primal fears propel Coraline

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Primal fears are at work in Henry Selick’s Coraline. From the days of fairy tales to Star Wars, abandonment issues have been a familiar theme in popular lore, as they deal with an issue none of us want to face, yet are destined to do so. The loss of our parents, whether we’re young or advanced in years, signals a transition replete with anxiety. Such has been a jumping off point for many coming of age tales, from Shakespeare’s Hamlet to the modern urban myth of Batman. The enduring popularity of these stories and others like them is that they provide examples of how to deal with this traumatic event either by presenting characters who find the strength to grow or cautionary tales in which despair is the order of the day.

Coraline (voice by Dakota Fanning) certainly fits the bill as a young lady to emulate as she possesses an inner strength that serves her well. While her parents are around physically, they’re absent in spirit as they’re swamped with work. Left to her own devices, Coraline explores the ramshackle country home they’ve moved into and uncovers a hidden door that opens to an alternate reality that looks like her own world, but is different in one respect: its much cheerier, as her parents there do all they can to care for her. Any child would want to stay in a place where the weather’s fine, the food is great and the parents doting. Our heroine is tempted to stay. The only catch is that to do so will cost her soul, something she’d rather not part with. However, when her real parents are kidnapped, Coraline is forced to confront her “other mother,” (Teri Hatcher) having to complete a frightening quest in order to secure their freedom.

Coraline’s journey in this other world makes Alice’s trip to Wonderland seem like a walk in the park. Selick maintains the basic plot of the Neil Gaiman book this is based on, but puts his own spin on it by expanding the roles of many of the characters. Mouse trainer Mr. Bobinsky (Ian McShane) is a twisting, turning wonder who cautions our heroine to be wary of things that are too good to be true while the retired actresses, Miss Spink (Jennifer Saunders) and Miss Forcible (Dawn French), distract her with candy that’s decades old and tales of their past theatrical triumphs, all of which symbolize the dangers of living in the past.

Selick also renders the alternate reality as one of wonder and delight. Cascading cherry blossoms, a garden that blooms to reveal a floral portrait of Coraline and Van Gogh’s Starry Night come to life are but a few of the stunning visuals Selick employs to sweep the audience away. They also heighten Coraline’s desire to stay in a place that she knows, to her very core, is a sham. That this is all done in digital 3D makes it all the more spectacular, and frightening once the other mother reveals her true self and our heroine must grow up quickly to save herself and her parents.

Selick has created a film that could wind up being this generation’s The Wizard of Oz [see interview with Selick, page 18].It speaks to our desire to return home, even if it is a drab place where you might be ignored every once in a while. And it gives us a plucky heroine who possesses qualities we can’t help but admire, namely courage, tenacity and good taste in gloves. Coraline is knockout in every way and should be seen on the big screen in 3D to fully appreciate the wonders it has in store.