Director: Henry Selick. With Dakota Fanning, Teri Hatcher, John Hodgman, Robert Bailey, Jr., Keith David.
There are excellent reasons why movies are made animated. Henry Selick must have had them, too, for adapting Neil Gaiman’s story, Coraline, into stop-motion animation for the screen. For purposes of discussion, let’s just say Mr. Selick must have had it in mind to make the movie appealing to children. The book itself from which the film is based, is of a fantasy/horror genre (a recipient of a Hugo), and he must have thought that spinning it using visually wondrous animation domesticates the horror part. But, like the cheerless landscape surrounding the pink house where Coraline lives, its genre portends palpably in the air, and makes you look as hard — or away, if you were a kid with low tolerance — at the landscape for the shadows that must surely live there as you do to the inside of the house.
That foreshadowing is never more apparent than at the beginning of the movie. A rag doll is being taken apart, its hair pried out of its scalp, its button eyes pricked with a sharp scissor, and its mouth slit open, and then the doll is disembowelled, its innards pulled out from that opening. The scene is cold and merciless. It’s only a doll. And that’s why Mr. Selick comes out as a masterful craftsman that way. And why lyricism can be said in much the same breath as horror.
Coraline (voice by Dakota Fanning) has just moved in with her family to a home in the middle of an expansive forest garden. She is lonely. Her parents (voices by John Hodgman and Teri Hatcher) are self-absorbed people who seem to have long suffered from Coraline’s petulant craving for their attention. And she is petulant. Whether she became that because of her parent’s inattention, or her parents just became tired because she complains a lot, the story does not venture. No matter. Her loneliness is enough reason for her to go venturing on her own. And that’s when she discovers a small door in her room that’s been wallpapered all over. She convinces her mother to open it, and she crawls right into a tunnel and into a house just like theirs. And, surprise, her mother and father are in it too, but they’re not like her real parents. For one, they have buttons sewn over their eyes. And they are a whole lot nicer and so attentive to her. And tells her she can stay if she agrees to have eyes just like theirs. Of course, she chooses to not stay, and thereupon, the Other Mother metamorphoses into who she really is, an evil persona with an evil-looking physique to match — a severely emaciated body, exaggeratedly elongated to loom over a child, and limbs of an arachnid. And the rest of the nightmare — or adventure, depending on how you see it — involves Coraline devising a way to get out, rescuing her parents who’ve been imprisoned , and ultimately vanquishing (read: kill) her Other Mother. All along the ride are oddball neighbours, a talking mean-looking cat, and three child ghosts.
Coraline is good storytelling using superb, meticulous technology. Its themes are everything every child and adult can understand: Be thankful for what you have, even unlikeable parents. Not everything good on the surface is really good; when it’s too good to be true, it most probably is. And, there’s a reason why small doors on walls are locked closed; in rare cases, there must probably be treasures or angels hiding there, but almost always, locked doors warn of darkness inside.
And it is this darkness that misplaces the film. “Why does she want me?” Coraline asks the cat of her Other Mother. And the cat (voice by Keith David) replied, “Maybe because she just wants something to eat.” It drips with so much psychology, it waters down a child’s wonderment when watching animation. There are no sweet and nice characters here. Everything and everyone is menacing, grim, and grey — or black –, even Coraline, with her sullenness. One particularly horrific image is the face of a boy named Wybie (voice by Robert Bailey, Jr.) in one scene, where his mouth is all sewn up at the ends to resemble a smiling mouth. The musical score is a creepy tinkle to the ears, about as unobtrusive as long nails scratching glass.
To repeat, there are reasons why stories are made animated. In the case of Coraline, it’s to wow people who appreciate and care for animation and all its stretches of possibilities. Forget about entertaining kids. Those who think that’s one of the reasons may well be stretched into confusion. Mr. Selick, skilled as he is, cannot deny in his execution of the story that this is a frightening tale first, a children’s, a far second.