It isn’t easy to find a children’s film that is as compelling as it is entertaining. Most children’s films today are cottony, cute-infused wads of feel-good, banal optimism. However, Henry Selick’s stop-motion animated “Coraline” stands out because it dares to be more than a series of colorful, action-oriented images formed around a wholesome message for school-aged children.
“Coraline,” based on the children’s book of the same name by Neil Gaiman, does not shy away from the dark side of childhood experience. While some retrospectively see childhood as a time of fun and comfort, it is for most others tinged with fear and anxiety much more intense than adult unrest simply because a child’s imagination has not been dulled by the daily grind of adult life. “Coraline” effortlessly taps into this kind of dramatic consciousness. Many scenes in the movie are chilling enough to rattle mature audiences, and its motifs and symbolism provide plenty of intellectual stimulation for those who are more invested in narrative depth.
Eleven-year-old, blue-haired Coraline is bored and neglected in her family’s new home, an eerie, labyrinthine-like old house ironically called the Pink Palace. While exploring the premises, she discovers an Alice in Wonderland-like tunnel through a secret door in the wall. On the other side lies a too-good-to-be-true version of reality, a Pink Palace of wonders, delicious food and doting parents who provide her with everything she could possibly wish for.
The moral lesson, presented as the film quickly unravels into a stunningly twisted nightmare sequence, is that things are not always what they seem. “Coraline’s” catchphrase, “Be careful what you wish for,” along with the subtly foreboding atmosphere that opens the narrative, set up the viewer to expect a turn of events. Sure enough, all the inhabitants of the Other World have buttons sewn over their eyes and the Other Mother turns out to be a predator of children’s souls, seeking love but destroying the objects of this supposed filial affection.
Thoughtful viewers will enjoy how the film probes into the nature of the unconscious and the way Gaiman mixes the real and imaginary, posing a question of the human propensity to see what they want to believe. “Coraline” is a film about loneliness, desire and how these acute human emotions color both experience and consciousness. Things are not what they seem because what we see is often influenced by our emotional and mental states. Experience is ambiguous and always contingent. The questions of whether the imagination is truly separate from reality is posed as Coraline finds joy in the Other World or as the Other Mother asks Coraline to act as though she loved her are some of the film’s deeper inquiries.
Much of the plot will seem like recycled bits of classical fairytales. The mysterious house, magic doll, secret door and tunnel to another world, the evil stepmother — or in this case, Other Mother — and the talking animals are all there. But these elements are refreshed by Gaiman’s visionary storytelling, and there are certainly plenty of unconventional characters and threads that make “Coraline” as a whole, a highly original work of art.
Fans of “The Nightmare Before Christmas” will not be disappointed by the exquisite artistry of “Coraline,” which may well be the pinnacle of Selick’s animated film career. Gaiman’s surreal, fantastically eerie literature is brought thrillingly to life by Selick’s imaginative direction. The movie is infused with vibrant colors and populated by ingeniously designed, caricatured characters who manage to seem so perfectly human that they are almost disconcerting to watch. Every frame in the movie is painstakingly rendered, and the voice acting by Dakota Fanning and an excellent supporting cast is flawless.
Selick does not condescend to the young demographic. His witty, alternately hilarious and horrifying characters, and intricate architectural designs are intellectually valuable and demand respect, making the film worth viewing even if the narrative is simply a rehashing of old fairy-tale motifs. Thematically rich and visually astounding, “Coraline” is a film for everyone, not just the young.