“Coraline” essentially examines the precocious curiosity of an unpleasant, evil, selfish, ungrateful, and cruel little girl with no redeeming qualities. By the end of the film, she is a little more appreciative of her life, but still seems to be struggling to find any reasonable sense of humanity. There have films about imperfect people before that have been successful because those characters were interesting and inspired, while providing even a limited catharsis at the conclusion that made the audience feel as if something was achieved through the course of the story.
Coraline Jones (Dakota Fanning) has recently moved into a house in the middle of nowhere where the weather is continuously cold and dreary, often preventing her from being able to play. Her parents, Mother (Teri Hatcher) and Father (John Hodgman), are putting together a catalogue that explicitly instructs on how best to begin a garden, even though they do not have one themselves. Mother and Father continuously ignore Coraline, implying that they are either terrible people, awful parents, or plot devices without any authentic qualities.
Coraline is beginning to realize that she may not get the attention she covets from her parents and attempts to find other ways to manage her time. When she travels outside the contents of her new home, Wybie (Robert Bailey, Jr.) is always there to follow her. His name is Wybie, or “Why Were You Born,” which is supposed to be funny but seems like a nasty and unnecessary addition to a “children’s” film.
Coraline begins to wish for different parents, which is made true when a tiny door in her house leads to an alternative world. After traveling through the portal, Coraline is astonished to discover that both of her parents fulfill every dream she holds for them, despite having buttons as eyes. After a few visits, Coraline begins to realize that the alternative world is dissolving into a scary and unforgiving universe.
“Coraline” was directed by Henry Selick, who also made “Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas,” which hold similarities in their visual style, tone, and fatal flaw. Both films struggle with the fundamental nature of the audience they are attempting to reach. “Coraline” would be extraordinarily frightening to children, while incredibly juvenile to adults.
“Coraline” is not a complete disaster because there are moments of extreme beauty and it is often an intrinsically fascinating looking film. The best moment is when Coraline and her Other Mother walk in between the two houses and the screen accompanying them devolves into a white canvas. This striking and poignant symbolism implies that heaven is somewhere in between the imaginary and real worlds, neither one of which is perfect.
The problem with the film is that there is not enough significance to match this, which would have made it an effective movie for both adults and children. Most of the images display no meaning other than the animator’s ability to illustrate, making it basically doodling of the highest order. “Coraline” might have worked as a 14 minute short film but seems long, tedious, and monotonous as a feature in its failed attempt to express the perpetual truth that children do not value their current existence.