SPOILERS a-hoy! Do not read further if you do not want to be spoiled! You have been WARNED!
Assuming you haven’t read the book, know that the movie is faithful to the feel, spirit and mood of Neil Gaiman’s novella.
Aside from the masterful animation and color palate and use of space within the movie, the characters are true to themselves. Coraline is a sassy, sarcastic, been-there-done-that tween with parents who concentrate more on their lives on the computer (for their gardening business) than on her.
There is no doubt that her father loves her, distracted as he is with his wife’s competitive personality and his writing; but her relationship with her mother is the heart of the movie. How could it not be, when the main theme has to do with wish fulfillment of the Perfect Mother?
Coraline’s mother is competitive with her husband, brushes her daughter off with sarcasm that has rubbed off on her daughter, and is in a line of work she doesn’t really seem to enjoy. How can you enjoy gardening-growing things (like daughters, vegetables and flowers) if you hate getting dirty? Teri Hatcher’s voice work for Mother/Other Mother is excellent. At no point did she come across as shrill or completely unlikable; but mainly supremely impatient, self-centered and anxious and smart. There’s no doubt that she loves Coraline. But how she loves Coraline come into question, and is, of course, the opening for the Other Mother to exploit.
An addition of a young male character Coraline’s age was mixed into the story. I was gratified to find out that Wybie Lovat was at least as complex as Coraline, and more tragic, but was never allowed to overshadow her either in the real world or in the Other Mother’s pocket universe. I’m not sure if Neil Gaiman had input into Wybie’s character or his place in the revised movie version, but his presence was organic.
Other elements native to the book were minimized or absent for lack of time, but fortunately, the Cat was not one of them. Coraline’s version of the Cheshire Cat is still charming, though not quite as much as the written Cat. He’s still mysterious and still totally a cat.
Out and about the internet, I have heard some rumblings from parents about the burlesque queens old-ladies. In the audience I sat with, their scene was the only one that engendered any true screeches of “GROSS!” (from children and parents alike!) because honestly, who ever expects mostly-naked old women with enormous attributes and saggy bodies covered only by skimpy pasties and g-strings? Old women aren’t supposed to be sexy. Old women aren’t supposed to go back to their days of sexiness-but these two do. In the pocket universe, they unzip their old selves and step out of the baggage of their old age (which they don’t seem to resent at all) and Coraline and the audience gets to see them as they probably see themselves. Beautiful, lithe, sexy, and yes, classy at the same time, even with the button eyes of the Other Mother’s pocket universe. Their role is a key one. They’re the ones who give Coraline a magic stone to find things. How they know what it is is a mystery, but like many things in the Coraline ‘verse, it doesn’t need explaining. It just is.
There’s also the goofy attic neighbor with the sentient mice who warn Coraline. The total effect is to make Coraline’s Pink Apartment House (a divided up old Victorian) into a circus.
I’ve left the Other Mother for last. At first, she’s everything Coraline’s real mother is NOT. She’s sympathetic. She cooks dinner, and makes Coraline’s favorite snacks. Her concern about Coraline knows no bounds. She’s about as June Cleaver as a mother can get. And Coraline, like any tween her age, believes in the Mom Myth and thinks a perfect mother will look to her every need. But the Other Mother forces Coraline to face reality; that as much as her real mother might not pay her the kind of attention she craves, at least she doesn’t try to actively kill her or make her choose between her soul and happiness.
Movies that feature mother-daughter dynamics like this are few and far between…even rarer than books that feature strong girls making tough or brave choices about what’s important and what’s not. I think Neil Gaiman’s Coraline does prove that girls have the same journeys of self-discovery as boys, and men-and Coraline was fortunate to have a production and animation team that appreciated her as much as her fans do (like my own 12 year old daughter, and me).