A few months ago I decided to take a day off from the soul-crushing monotony of job hunting to indulge in a day of animated feature films I had yet to see. The titles I got through that day include The Secret of NIMH, The Secret of Kells, Fantastic Mr Fox, Cloudy with a chance of Meatballs and Coraline. Having since bought all but the first of these films on DVD full reviews for The Secret of Kells and Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs are the way as is my verdict on Fantastic Mr Fox as part of an upcoming roundup. First though is my review for this astonishing film from the director of The Nightmare Before Christmas.
And I don’t mean Tim Burton. Henry Selick was the brilliant helmsman of the stop-motion classic, Burton assuming producer duties but not without creative input. With Coraline, another film released in the watershed year for animation that was 2009, Selick has surpassed even his most famous work by delivering a story at once whimsical and terrifying. Adapted from Neil Gaiman’s novella of the same name the film makes incredible use of tangible puppet-based stop-motion presented in a visual style of bold contrasts to tell its creepy tale.
Coraline Jones is a bratty but misunderstood girl perturbed by a recent house move who finds wonder in a fantastical other world. So far so Spirited Away but there the similarities to Hayao Miyazaki’s much-loved classic end. Coraline is as horrific as children’s films ever get combining its unsettling story with some seriously creepy visual design, not to mention spine-chilling use of sound, music and voice work. It might be the scariest and most brilliant children’s horror film ever made and one of the very best animated feature films period.
The key to its success is the slow build-up of tension. In the real world Coraline is a bored kid ignored by her workaholic parents trying to find something fun to do in the somewhat colourless, dormant world she lives in. An alluring splash of colour and warmth lights up her world and the film after she enters through a little door in her new house where she discovers a better version of her life on the other side. Her parents are attentive and fun, her other mother makes all her favourite food and her other father breaks into song in praise of her spontaneously. Even the neighbours are more entertaining but there’s one rather disturbing catch, everyone in this wonderful world has buttons for eyes.
As Coraline’s experiences of her new world go on the appeal of remaining there permanently builds but eventually the horrifying designs of her ghastly other mother become clear and that’s when the reasons for the PG rating start to show. Whether it’s the ghost children delivering the most chilling exposition scene in history, the sight of the other father becoming an unwilling puppet or the way the other world freezes over with death one bit at a time the final third is filled with unforgettable and sometimes disturbing (but still PG friendly) images. But at the heart of the horror is something far more frightening than anything visual can ever be. What is the most horrible thought a child could ever face? Losing their parents must be pretty high, but consider the prospect of one’s parents being translated into something altered, familiar yet different, something unsettled, something monstrous. Take it from me, this is the ultimate nightmare of childhood and the film exploits it with merciless intensity.
If that all sounds rather heavy fear not there are more than enough much lighter scenes to cut through the terror, among them a hilarious sequence in which a pair of old burlesque dancers put on a show practically in the nude for our heroine and an army of Scottie dogs. Or there’s the magical moment when she sees what the other world’s garden looks like from above. The film juggles light and shade very nicely but in doing so it toys with you in much the same way the other mother subdues Coraline, convincing us it’s all okay before unleashing the nightmare.
Enormous credit must go to the animators and design team for bringing this tactile, solid and fantastical world to vivid life. The attention to detail in the puppets, especially their clothes and hair is mind-blowing and the dynamic camerawork in some scenes is tremendous. All sorts of practical effects such as fog lend a brilliant sense of reality and detail while many of the more imaginative character and set designs will haunt you in all the right ways. The men and women working for Laika are a seriously talented bunch.
The voice talent does a magnificent job throughout. Dakota Fanning was a spot-on choice for the title role, breathing effortless sympathy into a complex and obnoxious character. Jennifer Saunders and Dawn French who served Henry Selick well for James and the Giant Peach are suitably eccentric as Miss Spink and Miss Forcible respectively while Ian McShane does his best Russian accent as bonkers circus master the Amazing Bobinski, but top marks must go to Teri Hatcher who pours enormous menace into the other mother.
Coraline is a singularly and unforgettably exhilarating film, one that surprises in every minute of its running time. Some parents would no doubt have been concerned that it was too scary as they left movie theatres with shell-shocked sprogs but they needn’t have worried. There’s nothing kids love more than having the bejeezus scared out of them and when it’s done this well it should be required viewing. Selick created in instant classic in A Nightmare Before Christmas, one of the best animated musicals and, until 2009, the best stop-motion film in existence. As great as it was and despite its clear horror-story theme it wasn’t scary, nor was it really trying to be. With Coraline he one-upped himself and made a film too terrifying to enjoy the same kind of mainstream success. So be it, cult status fits it much better anyway. Either way it’s absolutely peerless.
Playing on the most basic fears of childhood is a seriously potent approach when mixed with absolutely glorious animation design. Henry Selick may not have directed a whole lot of animated features but between this, The Nightmare Before Christmas and the also excellent James and the Giant Peach he should be considered one of the greats and Coraline is his masterpiece.