Henry Selick's 3D stop-motion feature is astonishing, funny and scary.
"I’m way too old for dolls." So says 11-year-old Coraline (Dakota Fanning), on the cusp of adolescence and already beginning to acquire the sort of dismissive contempt for what the world has to offer that will no doubt dominate her teen years.
Still, bored in her new, somewhat drab Oregon home and ignored by her deadline-driven parents (Teri Hatcher and John Hodgman), our young heroine will become beguiled by the gift of a doll that is the spitting image of herself (apart from its two button eyes) and will enter a narcissistic fantasy universe – before, that is, she is truly ready to appreciate reality and to put away childish things.
Coraline may imagine that the alternative world next door, with its more elaborate gardens, its more entertaining neighbours (Jennifer Saunders, Dawn French and Ian McShane), and its Other Mother (also Teri Hatcher) who somehow has everything that Coraline’s real mother seems to lack, is a haven from the disappointments of her actual existence.
But we can see, long before her dream turns into a nightmare, that this universe of pure wish-fulfilment is, for all its attractive wrapping, an empty and sterile confection that will lead at best to solipsism and self-absorption. And, at worst, to the loss of everything Coraline holds dear.
If the Other Mother becomes the focus of all Coraline’s hopes and fears, this ultra-needy, game-playing weaver of fictions bears a closer resemblance in many ways to Coraline herself than to her overworked, underrated parent. In confronting her Other Mother, Coraline is only facing up to her own dark half.
Henry Selick might not quite be a household name, but he is one of very few mainstream animators with a truly distinctive vision. The stop-motion gothic of The Nightmare Before Christmas and James and the Giant Peach resembles no other helmsman’s work (even if the direction of the former has often been mistakenly attributed to its better known writer Tim Burton). Coraline continues Selick’s aesthetic of carnivalesque dread, while pushing its boundaries even further, as the first-ever full-length stop-motion feature to have been conceived and photographed in 3D.
The results are simply astonishing. Selick has created a richly detailed, beautifully realised set of parallel worlds and allows us to become as lost as Coraline herself in and between their exquisite textures. With its frame-by-frame manipulation of physical models in miniature sets, the animation offers the perfect aesthetic frame for a tale full of dolls, puppets and robots; one concerned precisely with the shadowlands between reality and the imagination.
If the film’s old-fashioned (yet cutting-edge) stop-motion form suggests a respect for the past and a refusal to embrace the voguish merely for its own sake, so too does the story (adapted by Selick from Neil Gaiman’s 2002 novel). Complete with its own looking-glass world and talking cat, Coraline’s journey down the rabbit (or at least mouse) hole owes an obvious debt to Alice in Wonderland, even as Coraline’s monstrously distorted view of her own parents channels the long-dead ghost of Freud.
So where many contemporary CG movies seem likely to vanish once their moment has passed, Coraline has, matching its state-of-the-art craft, a story of real substance to lend it a timeless appeal. And in a nod to a fairytale tradition going back at least to the Brothers Grimm, it is also likely to embed itself for years to come in children’s psyches by scaring the eyeballs off any viewers not yet too old for dolls.
Two worlds, four dimensions.
Funny, scary and a quirky joy to behold.
A macabre coming-of-age classic.