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Sunday, February 08, 2009

Coraline

I got a phone call this weekend from my Aunt Bubbles in Las Vegas. I’m the only one in the family who calls her that and she always leaves her messages for me using that name, so she obviously approves, but then she is used to be saddled with multiple names. When she was a teenager her mother decided on a whim that Bubbles’ given name, Helen, “wasn’t working” even though Helen thought her name was just fine. Suddenly, and for the rest of her life, my grandmother began calling her daughter Margie and insisted that everyone else in the family follow her lead, which they obediently did. So at school and then at work and in her adult relationships and friendships away from the family she was “Helen” while every visit home meant she would revert back to this persona of “Margie,” some snapshot in my grandmother’s mind of the perfect teenager who never existed except maybe on tv’s “My Little Margie.”

My grandmother carried on the tradition even to the next generation when my cousin Rodney and
his starter wife, The Tramp Whose Name I Can’t Remember, had their first baby. They named him Nathaniel, which was put on his birth certificate. The next day Grandma visited the new parents, took one look at the infant, and said he looked like a “Frank” to her, and since that day even his not-too-bright parents have called the kid “Frank.” I don’t think he even knew his real name until he went to work as a teenager and needed a social security card, which bore the name Nathaniel. Yep, that’s the power of the Grandma.

That’s why by the time I reached adulthood I couldn’t bear to choose a side in the never-ending drama around my aunt’s moniker. My aunt and I loved one another to pieces and even shared an apartment for a while, but we were much more like BFFs than relatives in spite of the familial connection. As for being roommates, the best part was that my aunt worked at a hospital on the night shift and I worked at the Flamingo Hotel those same hours, so we would come home around 7:00 am and head straight to the 7/11 at the end of our block to pick up a bottle of champagne to guzzle down with dinner, which we usually ate around 9 in the morning. Viva Las Vegas. I loved going with her in the morning to the convenience store because it was always fun to see the looks of horror on the faces of the ever-changing minimum wage workers as the woman in blood-stained scrubs would come waltzing up to the counter holding a bottle of alcohol in one hand a pack of cigarettes in the other. The clerks were usually gawking, pimply-faced kids too young to buy either product they were ringing up, but they were inevitably focused less on these purchases than on the goo that covered my aunt’s shirt and pants. I’d pay for the bubbly water and cancer sticks since her scrubs had no pockets and I’d grimly tell the kid “We’ve got to calm the doctor down before her next surgery, otherwise her hands get jittery.” Amazingly, not one of these Einsteins ever responded to my comment, dumb struck or already dumb and unable to comprehend my sarcasm.


My aunt and I would go home to clean-up and then settle in for a little relaxation, and that’s when
we’d pop open the bottle of champagne for a few sips before dinner. It was the tickle of that effervescent drink that made her laugh every time, and led to my finding a refreshing solution to the constant Marge/Helen dilemma. And so Auntie Bubbles was born, and more than thirty five years later she is still calling herself that (but only to me and now my perfect husband).

It must be annoying to go through life having to constantly remind people of what your name is. In the movie
Coraline, the title character (voiced by Dakota Fanning; The Secret Life of Bees) has that same trouble. Coraline is a young girl who finds that every adult she meets seems to insist on calling her “Caroline” and no amount of correcting them helps. Apparently adults don’t really listen to kids, not even her parents, who are pre-occupied collaborating on writing a garden catalogue and barely have the time or patience to care what their daughter is doing in their new home. That is a real problem for Coraline because the family has moved from familiar Pontiac, Michigan to this oddball place called the Pink Palace Apartments, where there aren’t any other kids around and her best friends are only a memory in the photo by her bedside.

Coraline does meet one boy while she is out for a walk, a biking daredevil named Wybie Lovat (Robert Bailey, Jr.; The Happening), who fills her in on some of the residents of the house and the weird history that makes it off-limits per his grandmother’s rules. They form a tentative friendship, if only because Wybie also seems to be an outcast, even in his own family. He says he was named “Wybie” as in “Why be born?” How sad is that.

That night,
Coraline does some investigating of her own and finds a small door wallpapered over in the parlor of the house. After some prodding she convinces her mother (Teri Hatcher; tv’s “Desperate Housewives”) to cut open the door and use the key (handily available in a kitchen drawer), only to discover a brick wall.

This being a fantasy, later that evening as her parents sleep,
Coraline wakes and finds some mice coaxing her down to the door where she finds the bricks gone and a psychedelic tunnel glowing and practically begging her to come through to check out the other small door at the far end. Naturally, the girl is going to explore this mystery and finds everything she could ask for at the other end: a duplicate of her own home, but beautifully decorated, and with an attentive and loving pair of parents who seem to live only for her. The only difference between them and her other parents physically is in the eyes. They have buttons where their eyes should be. Odd, but considering how well Mom cooks and Dad gardens it’s easy to overlook a few things.

Now this would seem like a cute enough children’s movie and it’s definitely been marketed as such, but trust me, this is NOT for the little ones. It is based on a novella by Neil Gaiman, the author of Day of the Dead and The Graveyard Book, and it may look like a sweet and colorful treat in its advertising but it neglects to reveal its dark and twisted heart. The stop-action animation technique used by director Henry Selick (James and the Giant Peach) lends itself to this “precious” perception of the movie as the characters look more like caricatures of human beings than actual human beings, but for kids that may not matter. The fact remains that the “perfect” mother’s hidden agenda is to take Coraline and gouge out her very real eyes and replace them with buttons, then, when she grows tired of the girl as a “daughter” she will capture her soul and encase it forever in a prison while she feeds on the girl’s physical body as she has done with many other children before Coraline, all of which Coraline eventually learns when she meets the children who are still being held captive as ghosts. Ewww.

When
Coraline finds out the truth, she puts herself in jeopardy and is attacked by all kinds of monsters, most frighteningly by the creature that emerges by bursting forth from inside her mother’s façade. Now there’s an idea for every child to go home and think about ~ that their mother might actually be an evil alien insect from another world. Please, that happens very rarely, and I can attest from personal experience that my mother-in-law is the only one of her species to have come from her home world to wreak havoc on this planet. She told me herself that her kind live far underground and they seldom venture from the bowels of Uranus to come here. It’s just my luck that I’ve gotten to be bugged by her for so long. Now that’s a horror story even adults shouldn’t have to bear.

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