Sixteen years ago, a twisted little 3D animated film called The Nightmare Before Christmas hit theaters. Directed by Henry Selick, and written by the combined team of Caroline Thompson, Michael McDowell, and Tim Burton, Nightmare is a bizarre romantic children’s tale showcasing the efforts of the Pumpkin King (the King of Halloween) as he tries to shift gears and put on Christmas instead of Halloween for a change of pace. Deranged hilarity ensues.
There’s a key point in the above paragraph that may not click for a lot of people. Henry Selick directed the film, which is today remembered and considered a classic in part because of it’s animation. It’s also frequently credited as being Tim Burton’s movie. This is a point of confusion for me, and I think a strong example of how name association can prevent artist recognition. I readily grant that the story was conceived by Burton, but Selick not only brought that story to life, he gave it it’s immediately recognizable style; in no universe would Nightmare be nearly as well-remembered and recognized if not for his aesthetic touch.
If being credited alongside Burton caused any confusion as to who brought Nightmare to life, then Coraline should be Selick’s second chance at being recognized as the genius he is. Once again, he is adapting someone else’s story, Neil Gaiman’s novella of the same name. But with Coraline, Selick doesn’t simply bring someone else’s vision to life with his animation; here, he has taken that vision and made it into his own.
Coraline tells the story of a young girl yearning to escape from the doldrums of her lonely life in a flat with her caring but inattentive parents. Her explorations of the building they live in eventually lead her to a walled-off and bricked-up door that she soon discovers leads to a magical, alternate version of the world she lives in, where her Other Mother and Father dote on her endlessly and the rest of the Other inhabitants go to extraordinary lengths to amuse and entertain her. After a night featuring an animated garden party, a circus of mechanical mice, and indecent old ladies performing acrobatics, Coraline decides to stay in the Other world forever. Until, that is, she learns the price of admission, and soon finds that her Other Mother is not all she seems to be.
The film bounces seamlessly between the promise of the faerie tale Coraline first finds herself in, and the disturbing truth about the Other world and it’s master, balancing lush beauty with vivid horror. A circus of mechanical mice gives way to a troupe of more ill-natured rodents, theater-going Scotties turn into vampire bat-like creatures, and a garden party exploding with gorgeous colors decays into a (seemingly) lifeless expanse of decay. Once the fantasy and wonder of the Other world fade away, Coraline shifts gears and becomes something much darker, and finds itself on genuinely scary ground, which has raised the question as to whether or not the film is appropriate for younger children (it’s assumed target audience). I’m of the opinion (and Selick seems to agree) that kids are capable of processing the unsettling and the frightening much better than their parents are willing to admit. The film’s third act horror is unrelenting yet never overwhelming, providing a bounty of satisfying scares without transcending what is required for the purposes of the narrative. And it’s hard not to find some kind of weird beauty in even the scariest of Other world’s denizens– Selick’s designs are full of creativity and imagination, tempering the terror with a degree of whimsy.
Anchoring the animation are the performances of Dakota Fanning, Teri Hatcher, John Hodgman, Ian McShane, Keith David, Jennifer Saunders, Robert Baily Jr, and Dawn French. Each actor brings soulfulness to their character, an essential element that helps to make the animated cast truly alive, and as a result the voice work across the board is uniformly strong. Fanning carries the movie as the titular character, part inquisitive youth and part lonesome soul, and everyone else (particularly Hatcher and David) is very plainly having a ball giving life to their characters. Hatcher’s duplicitous Other Mother is a performance to savor, warm and loving one moment and malicious and cunning the next, though her work as Coraline’s real mother is far more nuanced.
Ultimately, the real triumph of Coraline is Selick’s direction. Despite being an adaptation, Selick has created a work that is uniquely and unmistakably his, a stop-motion animated world of beauty and horror, populated by characters both fantastical and genuinely frightening. If not an instant classic (which I argue it is), Coraline is at least nothing short of a landmark in animation and children’s story-telling.