Not too many films, especially childrens’ films, exist to scare adults more than children. There are items in the film that will terrorize children. The view of some of the denizens of the other world will likely appear in their nightmares. But the children viewing the film will not fully comprehend the feeling of isolation and of dread that the adults were certainly pick up. That is the beauty of the film. Very few films accomplish creating this atmosphere. I was especially surprised to see this marketed as a film meant for children. The only way to properly explain it is to mention a segment in The Simpsons, in which the children read The Raven. By the end of the episode, the children are laughing, but the adults listening in are unable to fall asleep.
Coraline is a girl from Michigan who moves out into the country at the behest of her parents. Her parents work write gardening magazines for a living. They are not bad people, but Coraline hates the fact that they are quite neglectful of her. The nearby area is also filled with bizarre characters, including a Russian circus master and two out of work actresses who have an obsession with Scottish terriers. The biggest problem is Wyborn, a boy that Coraline believes is stalking her. One night, she finds a door that leads to another world where her parents cater to her every whim and where the citizens exist exactly as she imagines them. They offer to allow her to stay in this world…but at a terrible cost.
First off, I can think of no other medium that would have suited the story. Stop motion is a dying art form, and its gratifying to see Henry Selick still ready to work in it. Selick is, of course, most famous as the director of The Nightmare Before Christmas. He knows how to create worlds that stimulate the imagination. Coraline is one of the most aesthetically pleasing films I’ve seen in quite some time. When the sheer act of watching the film is joyful, the director should celebrate his achievement.
But what else is there in this film that makes it so unique? Neil Gaiman deserves as much credit for giving the spark that created this world. This is a sort of Alice in Wonderland for the new millennium. There are some obvious parallels (the talking cat, the hole between both worlds, etc) but there is so much more. Alice in Wonderland was about the world of adults seen through the eyes of children. This is actually a very dark prospect. That is perhaps why that tale has been embraced by the goth subculture.
Coraline takes on different themes. Once again, it is the contrast between the world of adults and the world of children. In this case, Coraline has the exact opposite question to ask. What if you could remain a child, and have your every whim catered to..forever? What if all the troubles of the world could not affect you? Surely, such a world would be a paradise?
Well, no. No it would not be. It certainly sounds like one. But it is a false one. One cannot progress if the world stands still. And, even if people do help you, it is usually not without a price. These are important lessons for Coraline to learn. And learn them she does. She is quite a different character than normally appears in childrens’ films. That is, she acts exactly like a child. She berates people and things that annoy her. She is constantly complaining. She is constantly trying to stand out of the crowd, not blend in. She thinks she is unique and that the world revolves around her. Of course, even when it does, she realizes just how horrible her desires really are.
That characterization of Coraline may be the most important aspect of the film. Too many childrens’ films focus on how perfect children should behave. They only rebel because the plot requires them too. They are only crafty when the script demands it. The viewer expects Coraline to be all of those things. When she outsmarts the other mother, it is based on her self reliance and not a writer holding her hand. Most films do this, but not as much as they should. Amazing how a piece of wire can seem more human than most actors working today.
This is another film that is likely to end up on my personal top ten at the end of the year. It is a feast for the imagination and a remarkably deep animation film. It also uses the stop motion process to its best effect since, yes, The Nightmare Before Christmas.