Went to see Inkheart and Coraline this week­end with the GF, and thought it might be con­struc­tive to do a par­al­lel review of them, because to my mind they have at least a few things in com­mon. Also note that there may be spoil­ers, depend­ing on how you view things, below the fold here.

For starters, I haven’t read the nov­els either was derived from. This is a lacuna I intend to change, but it’s sig­nif­i­cant because I have a feel­ing that Inkheart, in par­tic­u­lar, suf­fered a lit­tle from my not hav­ing read the book.

The only truly decent tran­scrip­tion of fan­tasy to screen I’ve ever seen is, of course, Pete Jackson’s LotR tril­ogy — and even with his six hours’ screen time to play with, he still had to release extended, enhanced ver­sions on DVD. If you actu­ally want to watch the spe­cial edi­tions of that film set in one go, be pre­pared for a 9 to 10 hour time investment.

Inkheart felt a bit thin in places, a bit rushed. I had the feel­ing many of the char­ac­ters were more sketches than the fully-​​drawn iden­ti­ties Cornelia Funke likely cre­ated. The novel is rel­a­tively long, which is surely one rea­son. But the plot requires us to first become famil­iar with the con­cept of “sil­ver­tongues”, and then to become at least par­tially immersed in a nar­ra­tive within the nar­ra­tive, the epony­mous Inkheart. That’s a lot of devel­op­ment and back­ground we’re not really able to see or become involved in, at least not in the two-​​hour run­time of the movie.

And, well, some of the lack of depth might have come from Brendan Fraser’s per­for­mance. Helen Mirren had much less screen time, but I got her char­ac­ter almost imme­di­ately. Either she was handed a role that was a trans­par­ent car­i­ca­ture and down­played it to make it sub­tle, or she was handed a role that was thin and expanded it to make it gen­uine. Either way, Mirren is a hell of an actress, whereas Fraser’s father fig­ure felt a bit flat to me.

It didn’t help that we never really saw the back­ground of his rela­tion­ship with his wife or daugh­ter. These, like many other ele­ments of the story, were merely out­lines onscreen, out­lines which I feel were prob­a­bly much more deeply ren­dered in the novel. Often, too often, it seems we’re pre­sented not with a movie but with a syn­op­sis. That’s what hap­pens, though, in try­ing to tran­scribe a really long work into screen.

Probably the weak­est aspect of Inkheart, though, was the sim­i­lar­ity it bore in my mind to another fan­tasy novel by another German sto­ry­teller. Michael Ende wrote The Neverending Story in 1979, and it like Inkheart dealt with the per­me­able line between the real world and a fan­tasy land. It, like Inkheart, included vague ref­er­ences to a ghastly men­ace (Ende’s Nothing ver­sus Funke’s Shadow) that was a mor­tal threat. There aren’t any other gross sim­i­lar­i­ties that I can think of, but that’s suf­fi­cient to make Inkheart, at least to my mind, seem par­tially derivative.

Contrast this with Coraline. Reviews on the movie were gen­er­ally good, though they seemed to have two main com­plaints in com­mon: The third act felt hur­ried; and the imagery might be too creepy or weird for young kids. I do not agree with either assessment.

The quest, once Coraline’s been pre­sented with it, doesn’t need — didn’t need — to be overblown and long-​​winded. She sim­ply got to see for her­self the illu­sions behind the world she was in, and I appre­ci­ated that it wasn’t a drawn-​​out process, cud­geling the point home with histri­onic blud­geons of the sledge­ham­mer. To me the pac­ing was about right; for me what dragged was the ini­tial dis­cov­er­ies she made in the world behind the wall­pa­per, the gee-whiz-ain’t-it-great part of the film. That could have been a bit more brief.

As for the spooky fac­tor: Yes, the idea of hav­ing a mag­i­cal clone “mother” who seems obsessed with stitch­ing and lur­ing via food, one who wants to sew but­tons in place of your eyes, is a nicely spooky one. It is not, how­ever, insanely ter­ri­fy­ing. It just gives a nice shiver. The pre­sen­ta­tion in the film was not at all over the top. I cer­tainly found myself sym­pa­thetic with Coraline’s plight, but at no point did I see any­thing that (I believe) would have been alarm­ing to young children.

This is due in part to the mas­ter­ful cre­ation and ani­ma­tion of the stop-​​motion fig­ures. They’re car­i­ca­tures, and they’re out­ra­geous in the same sort of way as the dolls were from Nightmare Before Christmas. And just as that film didn’t present any­thing gen­uinely night­mar­ish, I don’t think Coraline will present an insur­mount­able bar­rier even to pre-​​tweens. It’s more like the visual and nar­ra­tive equiv­a­lent of a roller-​​coaster: There are thrills, but it’s always with just enough of an amused glint that you know things will, some­how, work out well in the end.

[Potential spoiler follows]

What I found most fas­ci­nat­ing about the story was the way Other Mother trans­formed, her true nature com­ing out at last. I’ve had a few serendip­i­tous events in my writ­ing over the years, just enough to make me want to ask Gaiman whether he always knew she would be a spi­der in the end, or if that aspect of her nature revealed itself to him part­way through the story, allow­ing him to revise some areas, and to — so to speak — stitch the nar­ra­tive into a beautifully-​​consistent whole.

Personally, I hope it was a serendip­i­tous rev­e­la­tion. It’s ever so much more fun that way.

[End spoiler]

However, as with Inkheart, Coraline seemed to suf­fer from being just a bit too thin onscreen. Again, I can’t really judge with­out hav­ing read the book, but the fact that I have to won­der at all what was miss­ing in the trans­la­tion — and it feels like some­thing was — sug­gests a less-​​than-​​transparent adaptation.

That said, I enjoyed both films, though I have the feel­ing that once I’ve read the nov­els, I’ll feel more cheated by the con­ver­sion of Inkheart to screen than Coraline. In any case, I wouldn’t have qualms about tak­ing kids to either film.

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