“I’m your other mother, silly.”
“Boys and girls are different, you know that? Little boys have fantasies in which they’re faster, or smarter, or able to fly. Where they hide their faces in secret identities, and listen to the people who despise them admiring their remarkable deeds. Pathetic, bespectacled rejected Perry Porter is secretly the Amazing Spider. Gawky, bespectacled, unloved Clint Clarke is really Hyperman, yes? Now, little girls, on the other hand, have different fantasies, much less convoluted. Their parents are not their parents. Their lives are not their lives. They are princesses. Lost princesses from different lands. And one day, the king and queen, their real parents, will take them back to their land, and then they’ll be happy, for ever and ever.”
—From The Sandman: A Game of You, written by Neil Gaiman.
The above passage, from Neil Gaiman’s groundbreaking comic book series, is spoken in a scene when a female character reenters her room from childhood and confronts a supernatural creature. This was written years before Gaiman’s young adult novel Coraline was published, and yet it seems to act a mission statement for that book. In 2009, after several years of hard work, animator Henry Selick (The Nightmare Before Christmas) and his team have brought Gaiman’s story to life in the most elaborate stop-motion animated film ever created.
Coraline Jones (Dakota Fanning, Push) has just moved with her family to a new home out in the middle of nowhere. Her mom (Teri Hatcher, Desperate Housewives) and dad (John Hodgman, The Daily Show) have no time to spend to with her. While exploring, Coraline finds a small door that leads to an otherworldly version of her house. Here, she meets her “other mother” and her “other father.” They give her anything she wants and life is perfect. There’s just one catch: The other parents have had their eyes replaced with black buttons, and if Coraline wants to stay, her eyes will have to go.
Coraline is a fantasy in the realm of Gilliam, Jeunet, Del Toro, and, yes, Tim Burton. This type of fantasy isn’t about wizards and dragons, but about finding the magic and wonder in the world around us. Locked attic doors, stray cats, snow globes on a mantle, origami birds, gardens with ancient stone walls—these ordinary sights become otherworldly when seen through Gaiman and Selick’s eyes. Coraline alternates between the “real” world and the “other” world. I use quotation marks because the “real” world is often just as odd or mysterious as its fantasy counterpart. Coraline’s neighbors include an aging Russian circus performer with blue skin (Ian McShane, Deadwood), a pair of elderly actresses (Jennifer Saunders, Absolutely Fabulous, and Dawn French, The Vicar of Dibley) with pet dogs both living and stuffed, and a boy named Wybie (Robert Bailey Jr., The Happening), who explores the woods surrounding Coraline’s house in search of slugs and other oddities. Coraline isn’t the only character bouncing back and forth between two worlds. Special mention must be made of a cat (Keith David, The Chronicles of Riddick), who gets chatty when in the other world. The character is Coraline’s personal Obi Wan, departing the occasional word of advice to Coraline when she needs it.
The spirit of exploration propels the whole movie. Early on, her father encourages her to explore the house as an excuse to keep her busy, and from then on, Coraline is always exploring, throughout the house, outside the house, meeting the neighbors, and so on. When she enters the other world, the explorations continue, but in a more controlled way, with her other mother carefully watching her, and watching her every move. Later, when Coraline reenters the other world when the other mother isn’t around, that’s when the story really turns, as she sees for the first just how sinister the forces pursuing her are. From there, the movie moves into surprisingly dark territory. Is it too scary for kids? That depends on your kid, obviously, but there is some genuine freakiness to be found here. And yet, Coraline never loses her exploratory spirit, and faces each dangerous encounter with courage. In one scene leading up to the finale, Coraline looks up at the sky and shouts “I’m not scared!” You’d have to pretty cold-hearted not to cheer for her at that moment.
Dakota Fanning has never been better. For once, she drops her usual “adult trapped in a child’s body” routine, and instead plays an ordinary—if spunky—kid. Teri Hatcher is also fantastic, playing more than one character, and really breathing life into each one. This just wouldn’t have been the same movie without her performance. Keith David’s voice, which is normally deep and authoritative, has a lighter playful tone this time around, which appropriate for his character. The other actors bring a lot of comedy and quirks to their roles, making for a nice ensemble overall.
There’s the intriguing story and the fun acting, but the visuals are what really elevate Coraline from the “good” category to the “holy crap this is totally freakin’ amazing” category. As with most animated films, the characters’ movements are exaggerated, but they’re exaggerated in such a way that expresses what each character is thinking and feeling. Notice how Coraline slumps over out of frustration when her dad doesn’t pay attention to her. It’s a larger-than-life gesture, but there’s a truth to it, and I’m sure a lot of parents will think, “Hey, my kid acts like that.” Coraline also gets a lot of close-ups. This is a necessity, as you can’t really have fantasy craziness without cutting the characters’ reaction shots. Otherwise, the movie stops becoming a story and turns into an animation/special effects reel. The animators have gone out of their way to make Coraline’s face as expressive as it can be. Each reaction shot is different, and it’s actually great fun to see all the ways that the wonder and/or terror reflect in Coraline’s face. The other characters have equally great designs and expressiveness. I like the dad’s long, gawky neck, and the way Wybie keeps tilting his head to the side.
In addition to the characters, the visuals also astound thanks to the overall world of Coraline. Big set pieces include the mouse circus, the trapeze act, the other world’s garden coming to life, and each of these “wonders” then falling apart in the third act. Whether it’s a big fantasy sequence or a smaller, quieter moment, just about every scene has some sort of eye-popping visual “wow” element to it.
The animation isn’t digital, but it was captured with digital cameras, and the picture quality on the DVD is truly outstanding. This is one of the best-looking discs I’ve ever seen. The colors are bright and powerful, and the animation comes across as smooth and fluid. The sound is also great. Notice how, during the “graying out” sequences near the end, the cracking sounds come out of all the speakers, completely surrounding the viewer, as well they should. The sound also nicely highlights the excellent score by composer Bruno Coulais, which alternates between playful and creepy.
Flip the disc over, and you get to watch the 3-D version of the movie. The creators state that because stop-motion animation is three-dimensional, what with the puppets and physical sets and all, that the 3-D is closer to their intentions. Whether you buy that argument is up to you, but I personally have yet to see 3-D transition to home theater in a way that replicates its recent advances in theaters. This DVD comes with four of he glasses, which have the red and green lenses. As always, the more fancy-pants your TV is, the better this will look. On my TV, there was indeed an impressive sense of depth, but the colors all became washed out, with the whole movie looking weirdly bluish-gray. At the risk of disagreeing with the great Henry Selick, I say you’re better off watching the 2-D version.
Both versions of the movie come with the same commentary by Selick, with a special appearance at one part by Coulais. Like he did in his Nightmare Before Christmas commentary, Selick spends a lot of time telling us which animators works on which scenes. That’s a nice sentiment, but after a while, it’s like he’s just reading lists of names at us. More interesting are his thoughts on differences between the book and movie, and why these changes were made. Moving onto the second disc, there are two robust documentaries. The first is an overall look at the making of the movie, from the creation of the story, to adapting it, to the many challenges faced during the long animation process. The second doc is a look at the voice actors in action, and their thoughts on the movie. From there, we get a look at some deleted scenes, with introductions by Selick. It’s not marked as such, but the second disc is where you’ll find the digital copy of the film.
Easily one of the best films of the year, Coraline is exquisite filmmaking.