Rat Boy's Braindump
the adventures of a nerd who never learned to shut up

Proving Pedigree with Nerdery

I wrote this almost a year ago – February 28, 2009 – after seeing Coraline in theaters with a friend of mine. I post it here to prove my nerd pedigree and so I get a chance to gush about one of my favorite movies once again.

Before Dick & Jane, before the Little Golden Books, and before Sesame Street became a vehicle for pushing Elmo merchandise, children’s stories were quite different. They were atmospheric, they were suspenseful, they were scary. In the vein of the Grimm fairy tales or the visionary work of Hans Christian Andersen, Coraline is a fairy tale that will at the very least creep you out ever so slightly. Rather than tell children that the world is a wonderful place with no bad guys and nothing to ever worry about, both the book and film tell audiences that the world is, in fact, a scary and sometimes lonely place, but that there are people in the world brave enough to fight the scary things and loving enough to beat the loneliness. It is a fairy tale for those of us, like myself, who grew up reading the less ‘safe’ children’s stories, the ones where good didn’t always win and sometimes everything wasn’t just right at the end of the story, even if the good guys made it home safely. And that is why is a children’s story that every child should see.

Coraline is, at heart, a story with a simple message: your life might be boring sometimes, and sometimes your family might not appreciate you as much as you’d like, but they still love you. And they are infinitely preferable to spiderlike she-demons who want to sew buttons into your eye sockets.

Er, more on that later.

Neil Gaiman has written a lot of wonderful stories. Coraline ranks with Anansi Boys and Neverwhere as one of his best stories, and the film more than deserves to be added to the list of essential children’s movies. Henry Selick has yet again brought his genius, both artistic and directorial, to bear on a film that just may have placed above Nightmare Before Christmas on my list of favorite films. It isn’t merely that it’s mostly true to the book. It’s not entirely true, of course, but the fact that Neil Gaiman was made aware of and given final say on any changes made to his story should negate any moaning about things being changed from the original story. It’s also not the visual effects that make it such an important film, as powerful to me from a visual standpoint as Labyrinth, Corpse Bride, or Little Shop of Horrors. It’s that, deep down, Coraline is one of the movies that makes you feel at home.

Who hasn’t been irritated when their parents are too busy working to spend time with them? Who hasn’t felt resentful and frustrated when moving to a new place, or being forced to adjust to new surroundings? And who doesn’t, at least at first, resist major changes by being as surly as possible, especially during their childhood? Coraline Jones is definitely not a poster child for adapting to her family’s move from Michigan to some rainy town in the middle of nowhere. But neither was I the happiest and most cooperative of teenagers when moved from California to Krasnodar, Russia. Okay, so not everybody will move to an entirely different country during their lifetime. But just about everyone can relate to Coraline’s frustration upon seeing that her parents haven’t even unpacked all their things but have already settled into working routines. There’s nobody for her to play with, aside from her weird neighbor kid, Wybie, and her parents won’t even let her out to work in the garden because of all the rain.

With nothing to do but scour the house, Coraline eventually discovers a very small door that has been wallpapered over and is locked up tight. Even with the key to the door, the situation doesn’t improve: whatever was behind the door is hidden by a brick wall. Eventually, however, the door is opened, and Coraline finds herself in… her own house again. Only it’s different. She finds the house populated by seemingly-identical versions of the people she knows in her own new house, though they are worlds more sympathetic, attentive, and kind to her. Even her weird neighbors, like the eccentric Russian circus performer Mr. Bobinski, and the two fat English ladies who used to be famous actresses, are drastically more interesting and interested in her. They even say her name properly instead of calling her Caroline. The only difference seems to be that her other mother and other father have buttons for eyes.

At first, things are pretty nice. When Coraline feels particularly unappreciated or annoyed, she waits until bedtime to find her way back into her other house, where her other parents feed her and show her amazing things, brought to life by the visual perfection that only stop-motion animation can provide. But even during the early moments of her visit to the other house, there are hints at the creepy, scary things to come.

What makes the movie, in terms of both plot and visual effects, so compelling, is the fact that this movie isn’t afraid to make you afraid. Like the best fairy tales, this movie scares you as it shows you that in the face of danger and horrific things, people can be brave, and loving and caring. Coraline grows both in herself and in her appreciation of the people who love her as she becomes locked in a dangerous game with her other mother, who has taken other children before Coraline, and if not stopped will surely do so again in time.

This is not a movie for small children. At the very least, to appreciate it a child should be around five years of age, and ideally fairly well-read (or well read to) so they know how to handle things that scare them or make them uncomfortable. But this is a movie that children should see. My children will definitely see it, and have the story read to them, and many other stories. Because as nice as I’m sure it is to be told that the world is wonderful and there are warm beds and piles of candy awaiting us all, I find it even nicer to be told that, yes, the world can be a terrible and frightening place. But as long as we are able to stand up to that fear, and hold onto the people who love us, we can make the world better.

Aside from the visual artistry that deserves an Academy Award and as many other awards as can possibly be given to it, the story at the heart of the film is so meaningful and touching that it makes it all the more disappointing to see how saccharine and bland the children’s stories that flood the market now have become. There is a place for both kinds of stories, of course – I will never cast aspersions upon the literary significance of If you Give a Mouse a Cookie or Sheep in a Jeep but there will always, and should always, be a place on the bookshelf or movie rack for stories like Coraline, the Little Match Girl, and A Series of Unfortunate Events. We do ourselves and our children a disservice by only showing them the sunshine and lollipops to be seen in life, and forgetting to show them the things that each of us can stand up and overcome, with a little faith in ourselves.

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