Directed by: Harry Selick
Written by: Harry Selick, based on a novel by Neil Gaiman
Starring: (the voices of) Dakota Fanning, Teri Hatcher, John Hodgman, Keith David, Ian McShane, Jennifer Saunders, Dawn French
(100 minutes, Color)
As children most of us are tricked into believing the 21st century, "Disney-fied" version of fairy tales. I, like many my age, was raised on carefree legends that were delivered comfortably to me through G-rated VHS tapes. The first time I picked up Hans Christian Andersen's "The Little Mermaid," I was shocked, expecting Sebastian the singing crab and "Part of Your World" as opposed to the sobering, vaguely religious tale I ended up reading. What eight-year-old weaned on Disney expects the Little Mermaid to die heartbroken after witnessing her beloved prince spend his wedding night with his new bride?
My point is this: the true fairy tales, the best fairy tales, contain often harsh doses of reality. They're grim. They're often frightening. And they remind us to be content with our daily lives, lest we bite off more than we can chew and end up baked in an oven by a witch, eaten by a giant, or trapped in some sort of eternal torture. I think it's a myth that kids can't or won't appreciate mature stories, and I think that the best movies for kids contain an appropriate level of very real, adult depth. Think back to the movies you loved most as a kid. I bet they didn't pander to you. Kids know just as well as anyone when they're being condescended to, and that's why they often long to see new and vibrant things. In fact, the greatest movies for kids are equally as entertaining and poignant for adults. Sincerity doesn't come with a prescribed age; it's universal.
That's why Coraline ranks as one of the best children's films I've ever seen. Encapsulated in a short hour and forty minutes is so much meaning and creativity I have a hard time imagining anyone, of any age, who would not be entertained by this movie. To watch it is to be physically transported to a wonder-filled and often nightmarish reverie, the likes of which most of us couldn't even dream up. What makes Coraline so successful is the confidence of its director and writer, Harry Selick. This is his third high-profile stop-motion film, the first of which is the classic The Nightmare Before Christmas. But where The Nightmare Before Christmas felt like a brilliant albeit sorely uneven science project, Coraline feels sure-footed and dauntless. Coraline represents Selick's genius with all the kinks worked out. The pacing is quick but not breathless; Selick takes time to linger when he needs to. It's as if he knows the exact moments the audience's emotions will be pulled; when a smile will cross our faces or gasps will fill the room. The movie is based on a novel by Neil Gaiman, but Selick completely owns this story and wears it with supreme knowledge and valiance.
And what voices! Dakota Fanning stars as Coraline, the protagonist, who moves with her botanist/journalist parents to The Pink Palace, a dilapidated three-apartment complex with a generous amount of mystery. The other two apartments are inhabited by eccentric, theatrical characters: a kooky mouse breeder bent on creating a mouse circus, and two old, bickering broads with an unhealthy amount of taxidermied dogs and dreams of the theatre. The mouse man, The Great Bobinsky, is voiced by Ian McShane with panache and an accent that renders Mr. McShane unrecognizable. Bobinsky is a comic character, but McShane lends enough gravitas to the character to let the audience suspect that Bobinsky's warnings may be something more than the ramblings of an intoxicated eccentric. And the two old women, voiced by the great dames of British comedy Jennifer Saunders and Dawn French, are a highlight of the film. A hilariously botched musical number attempted by the two characters is one of the film's most memorable sequences, due to both its precise timing and colorful visual execution.
But even with all of these colorful neighbors, Coraline can't run from the fact that her parents (Teri Hatcher and John Hodgman) are too distracted by their work to notice her much. Even the sweet and friendly attentions of a young neighbor boy don't quench Coraline's restlessness. So when she discovers a small trap-door in the corner of her living room, she can't help but cajole her mom for the key. The passage behind the door, blocked by bricks during the day, opens at night, and night after night Coraline follows it to a luminescent world nearly identical to her own...except for the flaws. This "other" world is one in which her neighbors are equally crazy but also successful, cats can talk, and her parents heap love and attention on her. But all that glitters is not gold, and as Coraline discovers more about her night-time excursions, they become more threatening. And that's when Coraline gets really interesting.
Here's the reason why: this movie is downright scary. Its villain, eventually revealed to be a cruel and seductive monster who enjoys preying on children's eyes, and through those eyes, the children's souls, is a very real and disturbing creation. Selick pulled out all the stops when creating creatures and situations to threaten Coraline, and what makes them so frightening is the brilliance with which he sets them up in the script. Almost all the evil in this movie begins as beauty, and it's the transformation from one to the other, and eventual juxtaposition of the two, that makes the movie's startling imagery all the more astonishing.
The monster, who appears as a human (with one notable difference) at first, is by the end a spindly, cragged, spider-like creature. A phosphorescent garden full of wonder and surprise caves in to reveal decay and malice. Watching the movie I was reminded of the similar imagery of Pan's Labyrinth (although rest assured, Coraline is significantly less violent and disturbing). But whereas Guillermo del Toro used the very adult themes of war and sacrifice in Pan's Labyrinth, Coraline boils down to the things everyone has felt since childhood: a fundamental fear of the unknown, a childlike desire for unattainable perfection, and the yearning for attention and understanding. That's what makes this movie so powerful for kids who can handle some of its harsher content. It's created for them, to give them a reprieve from the commercialism-coated, comfortably crude animated movies of today that beat you so hard over the head with a juvenile, belated moral that in the end, that moral means next to nothing.
Coraline's ending is real and complex, and in order to adequately describe it, I need to point out one more important technical aspect of the movie: the meticulous animation that draws the real world as exactly that: suitably dreary, natural, and pretty much ordinary, whereas Coraline's night-time world is a virtual explosion of the color palette, and is filled to overflowing with transcendent lights and mind-blowing visual movement. Which world does Coraline end up in? Since I think it's safe that you would assume she's not dead at the movie's end, I can go ahead and tell you that it's the former. At the movie's end, Coraline is safe and content in our world, but in order to accomplish that, she had to sacrifice the other world's glorious sheen and vibrancy. Selick makes no illusion that our everyday lives aren't, more often than not, dull and repetative. But at the movie's end, Coraline's world begins to shine a little. She works to make it magnificent. Her parents plant a garden, and even though it's nowhere near as fantastical as the garden in her other world, it shows signs of promise. One day it'll teem with beauty, and that's what Coraline is all about.
Coraline is rated PG for thematic elements, scary images, some language, and suggestive humor. The movie is intense and genuinely unsettling. Overly-sensitive kids will be scared by it. But for kids who are able to appreciate its technical superiority and message, Coraline will make for a wonderful film excursion.