Review– Coraline (the movie)

Coraline is 140 minutes of brilliance.

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).


  1. says

    Sweet! I’m particularly fascinated with what you say about Coraline’s mother – it sounds like the movie gives us more details and particulars about her, but she sounds just like I would have expected from the book.

  2. says

    What I really liked about the movie is that in the end, it’s about Coraline having the strength and resolve to fight back, not just for herself, but for her parents AND the ghost children. It’s a bit like Helena’s quest in Gaiman’s Mirrormask (in fact, Mirrormask‘s main villainess is an evil version of Helena’s mum, too) where the protagonist learns to let go of what her expectations for parents are supposed to be like and just loves them for themselves.

    I also really felt the ending of Coraline, where her parents, now no longer distracted by their work, get out and involved with her life (the gloves, and gardening despite her mum’s laughing confession that she really doesn’t like getting dirty), celebrated that kind of parent-child affection; they have their rough patches but they still have a loving relationship.

    That said, Other Mother also filled in archetypes, as discussed here which are well worth analyzing.

  3. gategrrl says

    That was an interesting conversation blog link, Jha. If I’m reading that post correctly, Coraline is seen as a story that reaffirms the old patriarchal standard by emphasizing the witchyness of the Other Mother and her occupation of only the home sphere (her universe only covers that small area, and nothing farther out).

    I don’t exactly disagree with what they say there–I highly recommend that other readers take a look at it–but I guess considering the medium, I’m just happy that it made it relatively unscathed to the big screen at all.

    It’s at bottom, a horror story, and I read/saw it for the horror tropes more than others. It’s like Alice in Wonderland and the Red Queen after they’ve read Clive Barker or Stephen King and blended with Bridge to Terebithia (which had its own horror surprise at the end).

    The Other Mother as a castrator…I suppose you could boil down almost any aggressive female killer character to that label.

  4. says

    You know, Jha’s link does make some interesting points, but I read the story almost exactly the opposite. Coraline’s mother is hardly June Cleaver; Other Mother is. Other Mother is evil; the real mother is just flawed. So, down with the old patriarchal June Cleaver as Perfect Mother standard for women, and on with the flawed human model of Coraline’s mother. (Which is basically what Gategrrl is saying, too, I think. My communication skills are at a really, really low ebb this week. Grunt, point.)

  5. gategrrl says

    Mmm. I think I did say that the Other Mother comes across at first as a June Cleaver Perfect Mother. Are you referring to Jha’s linked conversation?

  6. says

    On a side note, I just talked to a woman whose three boys were bugging her to death to see Coraline already, and she took them recently. They loved it.

    Can’t wait to see how Hollywood spins this as a “fluke.” Every time a movie proves that men/boys are perfectly willing to watch stories featuring women/girls as long as they’re good, the old guard finds a way to dismiss it as an anomaly. My guess? “Oh, they only went to see it for the 3D.” Hey, maybe we should start placing wagers on their bullshit! We might end up raising enough money to advertise the site in Variety or something! 😉

  7. MaggieCat says

    I’d put money on “They went because it looked scary” since the horror genre has always been more likely than most to have female main characters while still openly courting a male audience.

  8. says

    Let’s see…how many horror movies have had female protagonists?

    The Alien series (Ripley); Friday the 13th series; Nightmare on Elm St series; pick your Japanese horror flick and its American remake–The Ring, The Grudge, Black Water, etc etc etc.

    Dolores Claiborn, Misery (in the antagonist position), The House on Haunted Hill, The Haunting (pick your version), Rose Red, Last House on the Left, and so on.

    Female characters seem drawn to horror stories. Or horror seems drawn to slot them in antogonist or protagonist roles more often than other genres, that I can see.

  9. Patrick says

    My ten-year-old nephew just read the book when I loaned it to him, and really wants to see the movie. But obviously this is in spite of Coraline’s gender. He would clearly have been so much more excited if it had a “normal” male protagonist.

  10. Coldstone says

    Interesting review, however, I am surprised that you didn’t mention how weakened Coraline’s character was, particularly by the introduction of Wybie.

    I saw his introduction as a pathetic attempt to appeal to male viewers (thinking along the lines that men won’t go see a female protagonist).

    Particularly, contrasting with the Coraline character in the book, the movie Coraline is handed almost every bit of information. The other Mother gives her clues, the cat tells her what to do, the ghost children tell her what to do, she doesn’t even think to call the police, etc.

    The part that made my partner and I blanche was at the well. When finally it looked like Coraline would save Wybie, they pull the rug out and have the weak girl saved by the big strong boy.

    I was disgusted at how pathetic and annoying they made Coraline. She didn’t show strength or initiative. The movie reduced her to a follow everyone else’s lead, cry myself to sleep character, who runs away to the seemly easy other-where when she is unhappy at home.

    In the book, Coraline is a clever, independent, courageous young woman who is barely tempted by the otherworld and never once considers running away to there.

  11. says

    Although I wasn’t *pleased* by the introduction of Wybie into the story where the only other male characters had been the Cat, the Father and the Other Father and the nameless Crazy Old Man attic neighbor, I could understand why he was created as a way to help the narrative along. Why he wasn’t created as a she, however, is another question altogether.

    I did notice how the answers were fed to Coraline; I guess I figured that due to the restrictions of time and the animation, again, for story reasons things had to be moved along. Did it weaken Coraline? Perhaps. In the book, Cat is enigmatic, but does give her hints. She figures out the stone ring on her own in the movie version. In the book version, the ghosts tell her to “look through the stone.” At the well, she saves Wybie, then he returns the favor (if I’m remembering correctly).

    In the book, “All alone, in the middle of the night, Coraline began to cry” when she discovered her parents *still* weren’t home by 3:00am. That’s what she does in the movie, also.

    Coraline acts pretty much the same way in the movie as she does in the book, and I still see her as a strong character. The movie did leave out the story she tells the cat about her and her father and the wasps, but I didn’t see that as a huge miss.

    I’ll agree with you that in the book Coraline doesn’t seem as tempted or attracted to the Other Mother; it’s only until the Other Mother kidnaps her parents that she becomes determined to go back and get them (and save the three ghosts in the process). I don’t see what’s wrong with temptation, necessarily. Being tempted doesn’t mean a character is weakened. It means it’s human.

  12. says

    Not trying to defend the movie (I haven’t seen it after all), but here’s another question: how does a screenplay convey that Coraline has figured something out in her head? A screenplay can only deal with sight and sound. Either Coraline talks to herself, or a narrator tells us what she’s thinking, or she talks to someone else.

    Granted, maybe she could have had conversations with another character in which SHE ultimately figured out the answers. There may well have been a better solution the screenwriter didn’t consider. I’m just saying, it’s always an issue translating the thoughts in a characters head in a book into something a movie audience can either hear or infer visually.

  13. says

    I understand that the introduction of Wybie was to give Coraline someone to interact and talk to, as opposed to just thinking stuff in her head. Even while on her quest, she talks out loud. (And am I the only one who felt that the stone ring thing felt a bit videogame-ish? XD)

    And I didn’t see it as Wybie saving Coraline at the end at all – he quite clearly states that the Cat came to get him, and it’s the two of them together defeating the hand. It’s through Wybie that we get background info on the house, so I feel he’s a pretty useful mouthpiece.

    What I liked best about Wybie was that he was black. Apparently, this point gets missed. A lot. (It’s kinda like how I liked the fact that Neverwhere‘s Marquis was played by a black man, and how I liked the insertion of the very gay Captain Shakespeare in Stardust.)

    Also, the book is more steeped in the “real life” world, and there just isn’t enough space in 90 minutes to steep into a single world when there’re two worlds to go back and forth in. In this respect, I feel the movie did quite a good job delineating why Coraline would feel so tempted by the other-world.

  14. Patrick says

    Regarding the stone with a hole it it: It’s actually straight out of European folklore. If the hole was worn into the stone naturally, it can protect the bearer from fairy magic, and break their illusions. And there’s plenty to support the case that the Other Mother is one of the Fair Folk.

  15. says

    Jha, good point about Wybie-he was a person of color (POC) in the story; the only one. Without him, the entire cast would have been all white. And even so, it took me some peering at the character to make sure that’s what he was meant to be.

    None of the characters in the book were particularly coded as any particular race, and so defaulted to white in the movie. (IMHO, of course)

  16. The OTHER Maria says

    Wybie and his GMa and the twin sister were all black — I honestly cringed when Coraline referred to one of the ghost girls as being a “little rascals” looking kid. WTF was THAT about?

    Plus, I was really weirded out that at every stage, Coraline’s victory is handed to her by another character. The only moment where her native cleverness showed through was when she threw the flashlight at the dog devils so that they would attack Misses Spink and Forcible. Even that last bit at the end, she’s destroying the witch accidentally, when in the book, she conciously tricks the witch into following her by engaging in gendered subterfuge (she’s gonna have a tea party, woooo!) and remembering that the witch knows the house but not the grounds. To have that crucial moment be what felt like an accident (since she didn’t even know the hand was following her!!) really reduced the drama of that scene.

    I really enjoyed the movie and am glad I went ahead and saw it. But gosh dang, I hope the kiddies there eventually read the book. Coraline has much more agency, and is a definitive heroine, as opposed to some kid something happened to.

  17. ann says

    even though i didn’t see the movie , i was impress by the scene of the bug room in the other world, with the special effect of lighting . it is like the room is made of insect but it has a special system of lighting.

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