2009 | Director: Henry Selick | Writers: Henry Selick (Screenplay), Neil Gaiman (Novella)
It doesn’t take much to scare most children. Throw on a few blood-soaked rags and some clown makeup, sprint towards them with a chainsaw, scream, and you’ll have pretty much any kid soiling his pants in no time. But what’s the point? For most makers of children’s films, it’s because they believe that “kids like being scared,” as Henry Selick (The Nightmare Before Christmas, James and the Giant Peach) once said, and selling scares to kids, being the voracious consumers that they are, is a lucrative business. (Consider the success of R.L. Stine, J.K. Rowling, and Roald Dahl adaptations before you refute my uneducated and presumptuous claims.)
But Coraline, Selick’s new stop-motion masterpiece, proves an antithesis to most mindlessly scary kiddie fare in that it offers a very real explanation for the root of most grade-school terror—the fear of being marginalized or ignored—and explores that theme fully, all while immersing the viewer in an ethereal world of fantasy that entertains from start to finish. Simply put, Coraline is a wonderful fable, and, aside from the annual Pixar offering, the finest children’s film I’ve seen in several years.
The film, adapted briskly from a novella by Neil Gaiman, follows Coraline Jones (an expressive Dakota Fanning, complete with Michigander accent), having recently moved into an apartment in an old, pink house on a misty, grey hill with her writer parents (Teri Hatcher and John Hodgman), as she explores her surroundings and meets her new neighbors, a collection of creepy oddballs who all find ways to overlook Coraline as much as her busy parents do, to the point that almost no one can correctly pronounce her name. Driven by ennui, Coraline finds a secret door that leads to a parallel world where it’s always night, always beautiful, and where her parents are endlessly attentive, fun, and permissive to any indulgence Coraline craves. The only discernable difference is that everyone in the “Other” world has buttons where their eyes should be, and Coraline soon finds that she can’t be any different if she wishes to stay there.
Coraline manages to be greater than the average animated film by complimenting its deceptively deep story with grotesque characters and breathtaking visuals that seem, at times, more authentic than real locations in live-action films, while other setpieces, like the “Other” world’s glowing, starlit garden, are reminiscent of the big, flashy sets from Hollywood musicals past, almost ostentatious in style. From a production design standpoint, Coraline is at once lifelike and larger-than-life impressive, marrying color and shape with the wonder of animation as it should be, hand-created and shot frame-by-frame, even into its ambitiously spooky third act.
But best of all, Coraline takes its target audience seriously, examining the emotional needs of children with a Dahl-like fairness that never takes sides with adults or kids for too long at a time. In fact, the most refreshing thing about the film is that it places a great deal of culpability on its protagonist for the mess she’s gotten into. Coraline feels neglected, yes; but Fanning’s personality-drenched characterization imbues her with an air of selfishness and misplaced entitlement that’s not too far off the mark if you’ve ever met a ten-year-old girl before.
So what’s really frightening to a child? Boredom, for one thing. But Selick is happy to point out to any children paying attention that there are far, far worse things in the world than feeling ignored every now and then, and one of them is getting everything one asks for.
Rating: Four of Five Stars