Your parents are not your parents and might go away; there is a door, in a wall, which will take you to a place which seems like a dream, but is actually a nightmare; animals are wiser than they look and could tell you useful things, if they chose. Neil Gaiman's tough-minded story for children, 'Coraline', is popular with its target audience because it uses a number of the standard fears of actual children, fears well-remembered by many adults, though forgotten by others. Its epigraph from Chesterton reminds us that the point of fairystory - perhaps of all myth - is to show us that fears can be overcome; those critics who have attacked the book, or Henry Selleck's new film based on it, as too terrifying for the young. seem to forget that fears are the one thing from which children cannot be protected - they can only be given tools for overcoming them.
Both book and film then are as frightening as they are ornamental; the predatory Other Mother who tries to inveigle young Coraline into staying in her pocket universe, with better cooking than the child's work-harrassed parents quite manage, and with fantasticated versions of their eccentric neighbours, is referred to by earlier victims as the Beldam, and she has no mercy or justice in her. Gaiman is drawing on a variety of sources from fairytale and literature; when the Other Mother proposes to substitute black buttons for Coraline's eyes, it does not matter whether he is drawing consciously on Ibsen's Peer Gynt - whose eyes the trolls propose to slit, whom the Button Moulder proposes to melt down to buttons - because myths are the product of convergent evolution. All fears are family to each other - and family is one of our greatest sources of dread.
Selick's 3-D stop-motion animation film of 'Coraline' is a glowing, decorated elaboration of Gaiman's comparatively austere original. The shows put on for the pragmatic, wilful Coraline by the fake neighbours of the sinister other-world are show-stopping set-pieces - the mouse circus choreographed into a Busby Berkley spectacular, and the theatrical performance by the Misses Spink and Forcible into a Shakespeare-spouting trapeze act, both raucously scored by Bruno Coulais; drawing on comparatively minor hints in the original, Selick adds a magic garden, full of worryingly animate plants, sessile bullfrogs and insectile humming-birds. It is worth pointing out, as always, that to recreate a book as a film is to impose a director's vision on what would be the reader's imagination - and there are gains from this as well as potential losses
Perhaps the film's only serious weakness - and the one point at which Selick's extension of the book potentially weakens Gaiman's vision - is that Coraline has help, at the climax, from an irritating neighbour boy who has no equivalent in the original. Coraline, like the cat who advises her, is a solitary who needs no help, and takes responsibility for her own mistakes. Still, in a dramatized version, she does need someone to voice her thoughts to and Selick's solution is an effective one.
Similarly the Other Mother's gradual metamorphosis from home-maker to universal spider, effectively voiced by Terri Hatcher, and the slow degradation of the world she has created as a trap, have to be more horrifying in the film; she is an ogre and a spider and a cyborg with metal hands, and her black button eyes come to resemble the black hollows of a skull. Selick's vision is all the more impressive for being able to include in its palate the cuteness of Disney, Pixar or Miyazaki and the art-house terribilita of Jan Svankmajer.
This is a film which stretches children's animation to the limit - the Other Mother is as compelling a vision of evil as, in her day, were Disney's wicked queens in 'Snow White' and 'Sleeping Beauty'.Much of what is finest in the film is under-stated - Selick uses the possibilities of 3-D sometimes for sensational moments like the Other Mother's stitching needle that lances towards the audience, more often for quiet texture. The other world has more depth and richness at first, than Coraline's real world, a depth that gradually becomes an Expressionist distortion of reality.
and - remember this is for the TLS whose audience needs things explaining -
From the beginnings of cinema, and even before the cameras and film stock needed to make films were widely available or affordable, those who loved film but were not neccessarily interested in pursuing film careers found ways of making pictures. Families made Tarzan adventures as a hobby; confidence tricksters got whole towns to co-operate in rip-offs of popular silent franchises, possibly as a loss-leader for private showings of pornography. As the technology has got simpler and cheaper, the results have become more technically accomplished - the fan films of today are sometimes slicker than actual Hollywood product.
This is one example - radical makeup techniques are another - of what can be termed competence cascades, the process whereby professional skills are admired and imitated by an amateur following in a process of continuous feedback and change of roles. Various filmmakers have played around with fan films - Andy Warhol made a homoerotic Batman/Dracula cross-over which is (perhaps mercifully) lost - and various franchises - Star Wars, Marvel comics - have alternately encouraged and suppressed fan efforts in order to keep interest alive without allowing amateurs to pass off their efforts as the real thing. Young rightly points to the way that the existence of this branch of fan culture is but one example of a general tendency of those devoted to particular areas of popular culture to move from passive consumption to active recreation and subversion.
Young's account is intelligent and partisan - he sends his readers off to such sites as YouTube to look at some of the best of what has been produced in the amateur sector. Inevitably he has his preferences - he is more interested in the shooting and acting of actual films than in the cutting of existing material to make something new and occasionally subversive - 'vidding'; he acknowledges that 'vidding' is far more popular with women than men and suggests reasons why this might be. What he does not do is examine the real creativity sometimes involved in this sector - a recut of the trailer to Zack Snyder's '300' which mocks it brillaintly by setting its simultaneously homoerotic and homophobic images to 'It's Raining Men'. This is odd, given his fondness for parody - the 'Pink 5' films, for example, which interpolate an air-headed Valley Girl into the action of the original Star Wars films.
This is a particularly odd omission given that the future of transformative appropriation of film is liable to be with the skills vidding demonstrates rather than with actual actors and camera work. As the digitization of cinema's entire heritage continues and editing programmes become ever more accessible, it seems likely that one possible future for fan cinema - indeed for the mainstream - will include endless remakes and mashups - it is not that big a step from deleting JarJarBinks from 'The Phantom Menace' to replacing Bogart with Ronald Reagan in 'Casablanca'. Young is perhaps a little too in love with fan film-making to contemplate how easily it could turn to the dark side of the force.