Friday, February 27, 2009

Sweet Caroline

So, I did go and see Coraline.  My indecisiveness tends to make me inevitably postpone seeing movies in the theater... absent an easy invite from someone else, I tend to tell myself that I'll wait until the crowds die down, then that I'll wait until I can get cheap tickets at a matinee, then that everyone else has probably already seen it anyways so I'll wait for the DVD.  Pat, though, pointed out that Coraline had the best use of 3D that he's seen yet in a movie, and I'm somewhat confident that 3D will not be an option on the DVD.  That recommendation, combined with a delightfully rainy and otherwise useless weekend, prompted me to make the trek and watch it.

On the whole, I enjoyed the movie a lot.  I thought that the stop-motion animation was gorgeous, and in particular I LOVED the character design for Coraline.  I'm delighted that they kept so much of the spookiness and weirdness from the original Gaiman book.  As is often the case, I found myself impulsively focusing on every deviation from the source material, but this did much better than most adaptations, and the overall result felt quite faithful to the novella.


Because I'm overly analytical, here's a breakdown of the major differences I noticed and what I think about them.

WHITEY (or whatever his name is): Totally fabricated for the movie.  I think I would have felt more charitably towards him if I hadn't recently read that New Yorker article talking about how movies cannot get made unless they are expected to appeal to at least two of the four broad quadrants of America.  The original book was dominated by female personalities, and so it felt like they needed to bring in this new guy so men could "relate" to someone.  Boo.  Just having him in there isn't bad.  What's more distressing is how it undercuts the strength of Coraline.  Part of what I loved about the book, what was so unusual, was that this single, solitary young girl shows incredibly bravery in facing all kinds of nightmares almost entirely by herself.  Now, in the movie, she gets rescued by a man.  That feels like a step back to me.

What's funny is that, if you asked me, "Do you prefer the message that people are self-sufficient to do things on their own, or the message that we can accomplish greater things by working together?" I would choose the latter message without hesitation.  Still, that's not the message in the book, and it's a more mundane message.

Not discarding all the above kvetching, if I accept that they did need to add a major male character who dilutes Coraline's awesomeness, at least they made a great character.  Whitey isn't at all a conventional hero, and I dig his strangeness, that incredible character design (including a Splinter Cell mask, wow!), and of course his floppy-headed-ness.

PARENTS: Another step backwards in this book was its presentation of Coraline's parents.  What we see on screen is a tired, overused stereotype: the Professional Parents who Work Too Hard and Ignore Their Child because they Do Not Know What's Really Important In Life.  The real parents are snippy, dismissive, curt... all stuff that we've seen too many times in seemingly every other movie that features parents and children.  Gaiman's parents weren't distant in this way.  Nor were they warm and huggy-huggy.  I dug his description because they were interesting: sure, they were busy, but I didn't get the impression that they were too busy for Coraline.  They had senses of humor, and spark.  In the book I felt like the dad was inventing a game for Coraline because he wanted her to be interested; in the movie, he's clearly blowing her off.  Anyways.  I think the movie would have been less rote and more interesting if they'd kept the quirkiness of the parents.  That would have complicated their overly simplified moral, though.

MORAL: As you can probably imagine, Gaiman's book can't easily be distilled into a simple moral message.  It would probably be something like, "Imagination and curiosity are good, but can lead to dangers.  Sometimes you have to be incredibly brave to do something, and this bravery is especially admirable if you are deliberately entering danger."  The movie has a weaker and more conventional moral: "Parents should pay attention to their children and love them.  Kids should love their parents.  Being an individual is good."

MAN UPSTAIRS: They kept the mice/rats, but other than that, he wasn't at all what I imagined.  While reading the book, I wondered whether the other man upstairs was intended as a heavily veiled molester.... something about the writing was deeply uncomfortable and unsettling, with an air of menace about him.  In the movie, he's such an outright farce (in both worlds) that it's hard to really fear him.  I'm ambivalent on this change.  It's less creepy, but they take advantage of the change for some absolutely amazing visual scenes with him, which I cannot blame him for.

GEOGRAPHY: I don't remember if the book is set in any particular place.  I think I kind of assumed that it was the English countryside.  Well, we can't have an American movie filled with ENGLISHMEN, can we?  In the same proud tradition as U-571, it was emphatically re-set in the States.  I'm a bit bemused, but fine with the change.  It helps that it's grounded in relatively unromantic settings: Coraline has moved from Michigan to Oregon.  That feels real and believable  The big catch, of course, is that it's absurd to think that this house has been in use for hundreds of years, and that Elizabethan-era urchin ghosts would be floating around.


THE GARDEN: Gardening in general is new to the movie... there may be references to plants in the book, but I don't remember the parents being garden writers, nor any major scenes taking place in one.  The garden proper was an enjoyable addition to the movie: the scenes in there are some of the most amazing in what's already a visually gorgeous film.  Of course, in the book, Coraline confronts her "father" in the basement, not the garden, and I must say that the basement was even more menacing.  It's obvious why they made the switch, though.  You can write a really compelling passage about it being pitch black and not seeing anything, but it doesn't make for great movie watching.

RESCUING: I alluded to this before, but I'm not super happy with the new role Whitey plays, in either world.  He rescues Coraline from the mirror, then he unlocks the door to send her back to the real world, and then he saves her in the finale.  Coraline is still a strong character in the movie, but could have been stronger.  That said, it's not at all true that she's fully self-sufficient in the book... the stone she gets from the ladies is critically important, and the cat is enormously helpful as well.  The stone feels less important in the movie than in the book, and I think that's OK.

ENDING: Sigh.  I get why they did what they did - it's a kid's movie, you really can't let it drag for long, so after the climactic escape they need to move quickly towards the actual ending - but I feel like they hurt themselves by cutting out the tea party ruse.  The last section of the book is perfect for a horror-ish movie: it's so much more menacing to have the slow burn of Coraline hearing the scuttering hand outside her door, to wake up and catch it scratching at her window, trying to claw its way towards that which it most desires.  And it's so much more dramatic to have Coraline use her cunning to come up with a plan to defeat the hand once and for all.  They kept the setting in the movie, but made it all accidental, which in my opinion is far less interesting.  (Part of why I think Romeo & Juliet is among Shakespeare's weakest works, but that's another diatribe.)


Wow, I feel kind of bad for harping on so much.  The truth is that I really did enjoy this movie a lot, and it turned out far better than I had any right to expect.  I haven't even really touched on the LOOK of the thing, which is simply stunning.

Oh, and Pat was right about the 3D.  It's almost never about "let's point something out of the screen at you in a threatening manner".  Instead, it provides a depth and a richness.  On any given scene, if I looked for it I could see what it was doing, but it was enhancing what was on-screen rather than calling attention to itself.  Yes, that's right: it was used like all great special effects are.

Four-eyes like me may be interested to know that the glasses slide easily over your own spectacles.  You might have some problem if you wear truly huge frames, but most people should be OK.  It never got uncomfortable or dizzying.  Your mileage may vary.

And, because I always wonder about this when I DO go to see a movie in a theater: yes, there's something at the end of the credits.  No, it isn't anything especially dramatic or funny, just a cute little treat for people who stuck around.

Final verdict: the book and movie are different beasts.  The book's story is better, but the movie is more fun to watch.  If you have time, do them both!  If anyone did this in the opposite order (movie then book), I'd be interested to hear your thoughts on how they compare.

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