Nobody can drench a book in creepy, dank atmosphere like Neil Gaiman, infused with humor and more than a little horror.
Fortunately that flavour is kept alive in the movie adaptation of "Coraline," brought to life by the talented Henry Selick. It's a haunting little dark fairy tale full of decayed apartments, dancing rats and eerie soulless doppelgangers, as well as a gutsy heroine who finds herself in this ominous "other" world.
Newly moved into an aged apartment, Coraline (Dakota Fanning) is bored. Her parents are too busy to do anything with her, and her neighbors are either insane or boring. The one exception is Wybie, a boy who annoys her no end.
It's the sort of relentlessly dull world that any little girl would want to escape from -- until Coraline does. She encounters a plastered-up door and a colourful wormhole, leading to a doppelganger of new home. In fact, it's so similar that she has a button-eyed "other mother" (Teri Hatcher) and matching "other father," (John Hodgman) as well as great food, games, a shimmering magic garden, a chorus of circus rodents and magic toys.
At first Coraline is fascinated by the other world, especially since her other parents are as attentive as her real ones aren't. Then she finds her real parents sealed inside a mirror. With the help of a sarcastic cat, Coraline ventures back into the other world. But with her parents and a trio of dead children held hostage, Coraline's only hope is to gamble with her own freedom -- and she'll be trapped forever if she fails.
Neil Gaiman's book "Coraline" is a brilliant dark fairy-tale vibe -- decayed apartments, dead children, spiderwebs, beetles, disembodied hands, button eyes, and an insectile button-eyed woman who wants to claim Coraline for herself. It's a fairy tale world that turns into a nightmare realm where souls are lost and horrific things scuttle in the shadows.
Most directors would turn the story into a cutsy, unscary affair... but not the director of "The Nightmare Before Christmas" and "James and the Giant Peach." Instead, Selick gives it a dark, cobwebby atmosphere, brilliant colours and surreal details (the button eclipsing the moon). And it's full of lovely details that could have been silly (the creepy-crawly claw hand) yet work brilliantly.
The story starts off as merely surreal, but grows more ghastly and eerie as the movie unwinds -- and in the last third, the slow-moving story suddenly spins into a thoroughly spooky territory, and a truly terrifying climax where the Other Mother shows her true self. And along the way, there are plenty of wonderfully creepy moments -- the three ghosts in a rotting bedroom/mirror, the offering of buttons and thick black thread, weird circus acts, and much more. The horror is subtle, the delicious creepiness is not.
Coraline -- the Alice in this Notsowonderland -- is a wonderful little heroine: strong, sensible, self-sufficient but still fairly freaked out about what is happening around her. Normally I'm not crazy about Dakota Fanning, but voice-only she's quite good in this role.
The sarcastic cat is a wonderful counterpoint, and the movie's original character Wybie makes a nice companion (albeit an extraneous one). And the other mother is the stuff of nightmares -- she's utterly inhuman and merciless, and by the movie's climax she's become the stuff of nightmares. Oh, and French and Saunders make a pair of fun cameos as the kooky neighbors.
"Coraline" is a brilliantly dark little movie, full of dark magic and eerie creatures -- definitely for fans of Gaiman, dark fantasy and really creepy stuff.