All Eyes (and Ears) Are on Coraline

06/10/2009 4:00 AM |

Coraline Jones makes fun of her new neighbor, Wybie Lovat, “Why be born?” she taunts. He responds: “Ordinary names lead to ordinary expectations.” Coraline, the name that came out of creator Neil Gaiman’s typo, is not ordinary in the slightest bit.

Coraline the novel, written by Neil Gaiman, beget the movie, directed by Henry Selick, which in turn beget the musical, directed by Leigh Silverman and written by David Greenspan. The result is three different yet similar yet wonderfully entrancing versions of Coraline’s story and her adventures in the Other World.

Coraline, our heroine in all three tales, moves with her mother and father into a new apartment in a new neighborhood. Her neighbors are Mister Bobo (Bobinsky in the film), the thickly Russian-accented man training unseen circus rats upstairs, and Miss Forcible and Miss Spink, sisters who are former stage actors now left to reminisce about their starry pasts downstairs. Coraline’s parents are too absorbed in their work to be concerned with her, so she keeps herself amused at exploring the house and area. During her navigations, she finds a locked door that is bricked up. This is the door that leads to the Other World, where she finds her Other Mother and Other Father and Other neighbors. This world is familiar to her – same furniture, same people – but there’s a different aura that Coraline falls in love with, a world where she isn’t ignored and is free to do as she pleases.

What exactly makes someone an Other? Their button eyes, of course. Soon enough, Other Mother and Other Father want Coraline to stay, and all she has to do is replace her ordinary eyes with those glistening black buttons. Creeped out, Coraline understands that not everything is perfect in this Other World, ruled by Other Mother.

Neil Gaiman’s language in Coraline the novel is accessible yet imaginative. Gaiman (who previously brought us The Sandman, among other titles) originally wrote the tale as a scary bedtime story requested by his daughter. The result resembles a much darker Alice in Wonderland. Both Alice and Coraline offer escapes for their female leads into experiences tinged with magical realism, creating the extraordinary out of the ordinary. Alice’s adventures are more out there, though, and aren’t as grounded in an askew version of reality as Coraline’s. In both, though, the readers are free to visualize their own heroine and her world, which turns us into participants in the fiction.

The musical, directed by Leigh Silverman, disregards the film and instead takes its cues from the book, with the added bonuses of music, singing, and dancing. Stephen Merritt – best known as leader of The Magnetic Fields and singer-songwriter behind their epic three-disc ode to love album, 69 Love Songs – understands the world of Coraline perfectly. His piano orchestra, performed by Phyllis Chen, plucks merrily and creepily with the songs and movements of the cast.

David Greenspan, who wrote the Coraline musical, is known for playing with identity and gender roles, and this production is no exception. He himself plays the eccentric, high-pitched growling Other Mother, donning a thick black and silver wig, red apron, and the signature button eyeglasses. The slinky Julian Fleisher plays Cat, the narrator, and, most amusingly, the tiny door that leads to the Other World. As Coraline, middle-aged actress Jayne Houdyshell isn’t what I pictured, but she completely embodies the character, seeming younger and smaller. Casting her in the lead matches the spirit of Coraline: you have to suspend your disbelief and trust what is in front of you. Houdyshell seems a young girl, dressed in green Wellingtons and a pink cardigan vest, and she plays it well. I can’t help but wonder, though, what a younger actress would have done in her place.

Unlike this stage Coraline, Henry Selick’s film version is a departure from the original story, and it might be my favorite of the three. The plot is restructured and there are new characters. There’s Wybie, whose grandmother is the Jones’ landlady. He gives Coraline a doll, which bears a suspicious likeness to her, right down to its yellow coat. This doll becomes the narrative vehicle that leads Coraline to the door. Selick (who previously directed The Nightmare Before Christmas and James and the Giant Peach) has a distinct visual style that’s very apparent in Coraline. Objects in his stop-motion adaptation swirl and pop out – even without the help of 3D glasses.

While occasionally more kid-friendly (it’s rated PG, after all), the film does have its darker moments. Instead of rats, Mister Bobinsky’s circus creatures are kangaroo mice that turn into rats in the Other World. On the other side of the door, the Other Mother transforms into a tall and thin spidery she-creature that towers over Coraline, throwing the girl into her web. The Other Spink and Forcible are awfully risqué, wearing skimpy costumes despite their fat frames.

One moment from the film that I sorely missed in the musical was Coraline’s story about being brave. Before embarking back to the Other World to save her parents, she tells the cat about the day she and her father escaped wasps over the hill. Her father yelled at her to run while he stayed, allowing the wasps to sting him as she got away. That was, as he said, doing what he had to do as her father. When they reached home, he realized he dropped his glasses and had to go back to retrieve them. He was scared, but he went anyway because he needed his glasses. That was, he explained, being brave. Coraline channels that bravery as she goes back to the Other World to save her parents and the ghost children, fully aware of the consequences of doing so. This comes across more in the book and the musical (film Coraline is saved by Wybie rather than by taking matters into her own hands). The movie’s Coraline, though, is also endearingly quirky, walking around wearing a driver’s cap and using a forked branch as a guide.

Despite its kid-centric narrative, Coraline is for both children and adults. While Gaiman won the ALA Notable Children’s Book Award for the novella, he recognized the wider appeal of the story. Fairy tales aren’t just for children. Tim Burton is currently directing a remake of Alice in Wonderland, Through the Looking Glass, and it’s pretty much guaranteed to be a hit.

When I saw the film a couple brought their baby, who promptly started crying when the Other Mother transformed into her true, spidery self. While standing in line to pick up tickets for the musical, the ticket seller asked the mother with her two children in front of us whether she knew about the play. She said she did. There were more kids inside, and they gasped and laughed at the right times during the musical.

One can’t help wonder why has Gaiman’s story inspired these adaptations in such quick succession. Coraline offers a new take on the fairy tale in that she (rather than a “he”) is the daring adventurer. She dreams and seeks something more than a boring new life that presents the same old junk all the time. But when she gets exactly what she wanted, she finds out wishes aren’t always as magical as they appear to be, as Other Mother swiftly demonstrates. In the book and the musical, Other Mister Bobo tells Coraline that Other Mother will give her everything she ever wanted. Coraline pauses, and then says, “You can’t have everything you want all the time. Where’s the fun in that?”

It’s impossible to say that any one version can stand on its own, because each one informs the others, just like the books and films in the Harry Potter series: where the movie skips over something, the book fills in, and the viewers/readers are still able to follow the story.

In all three versions of Coraline, when the heroine and the cat have their first conversation, she asks him his name. He answers: “We cats don’t need names, we know who we are; you people, on the other hand, you don’t know who you are.” But it turns out she does know who she is: she’s Coraline Jones, not Other Coraline. And whether on page, screen or stage, her story remains captivating.

Performances of Coraline continue through July 5.

(photo credit: Joan Marcus)

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