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Most 11-year-olds want new parents at some point. And Coraline is no different. Especially since Mom and Dad have moved the family from Michigan to Oregon—where it rains most of the year. (Ugh!) Mom says it's too muddy to play outside. The house is boring. And the only kid she's met is really weird.
Oh, and the food's lousy, too. Mom doesn't like to cook.
So nothing in Coraline's little world feels right. Until the day she sets out to do some exploring—and finds a door to an alternate reality. Yep, right there in her new room, covered over with wallpaper, is a little door that leads to a world in which she gets just the right everything. Where her "other parents" love her perfectly and are actually fun! Where a magical garden paints her portrait with flowers. Where cute performing mice spell out her name. And where Other Mom cooks up all the scrumptious treats she could ever want.
This place is great!
You know what's coming next, right? Perfection is just an illusion behind which a ghoulish nightmare lurks. But by the time Coraline figures that out, she's in too deep. It'll take every ounce of courage and every morsel of wit she can muster to keep the fake world from swallowing up her real one.
In somewhat circuitous style, Coraline highlights the value of parents—even the ones who seem boring in a less-than-perfect-but-very-real home. It also illustrates, somewhat, the illusion of perfection vs. the value of appreciating what you have. (The grass truly isn't greener on the other side of reality.)
The movie, in an equally indirect way, addresses the dangers of self-absorption. Coraline is often brushed aside as her busy parents finish demanding projects. (They both work from home.) So she's instantly enthralled with her other parents who dote on her. Everything her other parents do is focused on meeting her every want—but this dream world is shown to be empty in the end. And Coarline eventually learns to appreciate even the banalities of reality.
Coraline risks her life to save her parents and several others who need her help. Wybie, the neighbor boy, also ventures out on a limb to save her.
The fake world Coraline discovers has been created and is ruled by an evil witch, the likes of which have never been seen in Oz. Coraline has been called a children's horror story, and it has the gothic chops to more than justify the accusation: visions, monsters, gloom and terror. Not to mention the ghosts of murdered children who are stuck between worlds until Coraline "saves" them and (somehow) releases them into an unspecified eternity.
Eccentric neighbors Miss Spink and Miss Forcible read Coraline's tea leaves to tell her future. (She's in grave danger.) Later they give her a triangular stone with a round eyehole that allows her to see—and ultimately save—lost souls. The film begins with Coraline looking for an old water well by employing a "magic dowser." Seeing her, Wybie calls her a "water witch." She's also called a "twitchy witchy girl."
Other Father says a blessing before a meal, but he ends up turning it into a lame rhyme and doesn't address God.
This is a movie targeting children, so I should be able to write none. Alas, Coraline demands three paragraphs devoted to sexual material and near-nudity. I'll start at the top, as it were: In a theatrical, acrobatic performance, Miss Spink's obese torso is shown in a midriff- and cleavage-revealing mermaid costume. Miss Forcible goes even further, appearing in nothing more than a bikini bottom and sequin pasties. Coraline shouts in a sort of astonished delight, "She's practically naked!" (That was my thought as well, but delete the glee and insert disbelief and cringing.)
Ultimately, Spink and Forcible are shown to be wearing "fat suit" costumes that zipper off revealing slender, much younger and slightly more clothed women. But just as the fact that this is an animated film doesn't wholly mitigate this offense, so the idea that—surprise!—it's a fat suit doesn't really negate the problem of entertaining kids with nearly nude women doing trapeze acts.
Mr. Bobinsky, another oddball neighbor, is shown in tiny shorts and a shirt that reveals his large, hairy belly. He vaults from a balcony and lands nearly on top of Coraline, with his, uh, personal region mere millimeters from her pointing gardening shears.
In the opening scene, skeleton-like metal hands slice open a rag doll's mouth, pull off its button eyes and take out its stuffing. Simply reading this description may not seem upsetting, but the shot can be difficult to watch. Also disturbing is Coraline burning a doll that represents her father. We understand why she does it—to try to defeat the witch, but the sight is still unpleasant in its connotation. In the other world, Wybie's mouth gets stitched into a smile because he dared to frown.
Coraline inadvertently hits a cat with a rock, making it yowl. This cat later bites down on a mouse's neck—crunch included. (The result is that the mouse grossly expands into an ugly rat as it dies.) Said feline is also thrown onto the witch's face, where it scratches off her button eyes. Coraline kicks someone in the head as she scrambles away from danger. Bat-like dogs bite at two women's faces as they grab for Coraline.
The witch, who in her "true" form is a spider-like hag with a skull for a head, chases Coraline with a good deal of menace—and for quite some time. She is said to have eaten up children's eyes and lives. Her severed mechanical hand stalks Coraline before it is finally crushed by a rock. Enchanted flowers and other usually nonviolent things in the garden attack Coraline. She fights back with shears.
When a second-story balcony collapses, Coraline falls with it and hits her head. She is thrown behind a huge mirror, which she eventually shatters—improbably with bare hands and no blood—to reach another realm. Coraline slugs Wybie several times. The other world disintegrates rapidly, leaving a white void from which Coraline has to run and scramble to escape.
Trauma seems to be what director Henry Selick was going for in Coraline. Before approaching the MPAA for a rating, Selick said, "We're hoping for an edgy PG. ... We're trying to send a signal with the trailer that it's scary and only for brave children of any age. It's not for little kids under 8."
Apparently, then, it's perfectly fine and fun to terrify children who are 8 or 9.
Crude or Profane Language
Coraline misuses God's name at least twice. "Jeez," "gosh," "Lord" "cripes almighty" and "rat crap" are used as exclamations. Name-calling includes "jerkwad," "psycho nerd," "dingbats," "wusspuss" and "creep."
Drug and Alcohol Content
Coraline's mom jokes about her husband being drunk. Miss Spink and Miss Forcible mistake pink lemonade for an alcoholic drink.
Other Negative Elements
Coraline's attitude is sometimes less than ... agreeable. She whines about dinner, mocks her mother, is sarcastic with both her parents and taunts the neighbor boy. She continues to pester Mom and Dad (the real versions) though they're busy and have asked for some peace and quiet. They share a bit of the blame for the family discord, too, though. Exasperation seems to be their standard MO.
Coraline steals a key from her mother. Wybie steals a doll from his grandmother.
Dad jokes about having a rash on his bottom. Wybie goes banana slug hunting, taking a slimy trophy and pretending to eat it and pull it out of his nose. Mr. Bobinsky does his exercises while balancing precariously on a steep roof's ridge cap.
Coraline was first a horror novella by English author Neil Gaiman. I haven't read it, but it's said to be severely disturbing. Writing for The New York Times, Charles Taylor called it "one of the most truly frightening books ever written."
This onscreen tale dutifully follows the breadcrumbs thrown down by that book. After helming The Nightmare Before Christmas, James and the Giant Peach and Monkeybone, Henry Selick told Ain't It Cool News, "[Coraline's] got sweetness and some dark, scary s---. But Coraline beats it. She wins. That, to me, is what allows us to go there. We wanted to bring that world that Neil Gaiman wrote to life. It's a great book. Why would I throw out what's great about it, which includes darkness, creepiness, spookiness, inventiveness?"
Correction: Coraline doesn't truly win. She might escape in the end. And she might exhibit courage under fire. But she doesn't win. Why? Because she's never given a valid choice between good and evil. Instead, she's slowly shown that her other parents in that other world are seriously messed up. So when Other Mother and Other Father ask to gouge her eyes out with a needle and replace them with buttons (the only way she can stay in their world), Coraline's decision isn't between reality and fantasy or even between selfishness and selflessness. It's between run and run!
We're left to think that had she been given a less painful, less creepy option—say, of cutting her hair or trimming her toenails as payment for the privilege of trading in her unexciting life and boring parents for "ideal" ones—she would have probably done it. The fee is stupendously steep, however, so to Coraline—and everybody watching—it's a no-brainer.
Really, the choice she makes to go home is based on self-preservation, not a triumph over darkness. She beats the witch by throwing the cat at her, but even that action is a "let the other guy suffer, not me" reaction to fear.
Then there's the issue of Selick's desire to, as he says, "go there" with this film. It's difficult for me to combine the words children's horror, but that's what Coraline callously does. I don't think going there—whether it's the macabre melodrama, casual acceptance of witchcraft, haunted-house violence or fat suit nudity—is ever a great idea. Let alone when there are 8-year-olds around.
Other Belief Systems
Readability Age Range
Voices of Dakota Fanning as Coraline; Teri Hatcher as Coraline's Mother/Other Mother; John Hodgman as Coraline's Father/Other Father; Keith David as Cat; Dawn French as Miss Forcible; Jennifer Saunders as Miss Spink; Ian McShane as Mr. Bobinsky; Robert Bailey Jr. as Wybie