Director : Henry Selick
Screenplay : Henry Selick (based on the novel by Neil Gaiman)
MPAA Rating : PG
Year of Release : 2009
Based on Neil Gaiman’s 2002 novel and brought to life with a seamless and heady blend of stop-motion animation and CGI, Henry Selick’s Coraline is a modern-day fairy tale firmly rooted in one of childhood’s most primal fantasies: that there is a better world where we truly belong--where parents are more appreciative and loving, food is better tasting and more plentiful, and the daily rituals of life are about fun and excitement, rather than boredom and loneliness. This is precisely what 11-year-old Coraline (voiced by Dakota Fanning) finds behind a small door that has been covered over in wallpaper and hidden behind a piece of furniture in the apartment in which she has recently moved with her parents (voiced by Teri Hatcher and John Hodgman). The apartment is actually part of a rambling, 100-year-old house that has been divided up into separate units, and when Coraline meets Wybie Lovet (voiced Robert Bailey Jr.), the sweet, but oddball grandson of the house’s owner, he tells her that normally his grandmother never rents the apartments to families with children. This would explain why the upstairs is home to Mr. Bobinsky (Ian McShane), a retired Russian acrobat, and the bottom floor is occupied by Miss Spink and Miss Forcible (Absolutely Fabulous’s Jennifer Saunders and Dawn French), two elderly former stage actresses who now spend all their time doting on their Highland terriers.
Coraline eventually learns why the grandmother doesn’t want children in the house, and it’s not because she hates kids. Rather, it is what is on the other side of the door in the living room: a parallel world in which Coraline finds her Other Mother and Other Father (also voiced by Hatcher and Hodgman), who look just like her real parents, except that they have large black buttons where their eyes should be. There are other, less unnerving differences, as well, particularly in their disposition and attitudes toward Coraline. Rather than being eternally busy working at home on their separate computers, they shower Coraline with love and affection, making her the center of their world. Instead of briskly shuffling her out of the room, they want to play games with her. Rather than looking tired and stressed, they are beaming and smiling. Rather than being restrictive, they’re gleefully permissive. It’s everything Coraline could possibly want, but like the gingerbread house in “Hansel and Gretel,” she soon learns that what seems to good to be true usually is, and the benefits of this other world are little more than a web spun with malevolent intent.
From a narrative perspective, Coraline lifts and reworks elements from hundreds of years of fairy tales and other morality stories that were meant to frighten children into being good, accepting what they’ve been given, and not wishing for too much. It is grounded firmly in the underlying fear that children are in constant danger because they are so easily lured, hence the constant admonition to never take candy from strangers. In a sense, the parallel world Coraline discovers on the other side of the living room wall is candy for her attention starvation, and we can’t blame her for eating it up and wanting more, even as we realize that something is just not right.
Director Henry Selick was perhaps the perfect visionary to bring Gaiman’s story to the screen because, like Tim Burton and Roald Dahl, who provided the source material for his previous films The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993) and James and the Giant Peach (1996), Selick understands the value of the uncanny. The world of Coraline is decidedly nightmarish in the way it takes the ordinary and twists it just to the point that it needles your nerves; there’s something not right, but it’s hard to put your finger on exactly what it is, which is infinitely more unsettling than broad-stroke monstrosities. Granted, the story eventually moves into direct horror terrain, although always with a sense of wicked glee, but even then the images work because they twist our expectations and makes the weird seem somehow logical (I never, for example, would have imagined that a skeletal hand composed entirely of sewing needles would make such an impression or that Highland terriers could make such frightening bats). It’s all very eerie, but also strangely beautiful.
The wizardly combination of traditional stop-motion animation, which brings a sense of texture and presence to the film’s otherworldly visuals, and CGI, which allows Selick and his team of artists to expand the visual universe far beyond what can be produced within physical reality, turns Coraline into a visual marvel whose most striking images bypass rationality and work directly on the subconscious. The film was also shot in 3-D, which gives Selick a few opportunities to exploit the medium’s pop-out-of-the-screen gimmickry, although he mostly uses it to emphasize depth in the screen, which makes the imagery both more realistic and more surreal. It is as though Gaiman’s novel were written with Selick’s visual approach in mind, and it’s hard to imagine the story being told in anything other than the film’s seamless blend of tactile and digital media.
Copyright ©2009 James Kendrick
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