At a time when too many animated family films needlessly coddle children at the expense of educating them through the mythical art of storytelling, along comes Coraline, which seems to stand athwart so many of the easy, uncomplicated children films routinely pumped out—a kind of cinematic over-medication of immediately attractive sights that are time-tested. A crushingly obvious example would be the recent Monsters vs. Aliens, which does nothing less (and certainly nothing more) than promise every child lots and lots of monsters and aliens on the screen. The story and characters do not matter in all too many instances; the pablum tacked on to make the experience at least nominally cohesive is rarely meaningful. Coraline, however, is a veritable one-film renaissance of family movie-making: Henry Selick's more intense, yet subtly transcribed, treatment of fairytale touches upon something more peculiar and universal all at once, because it seems legitimately childlike.
Selick's film is based on Neil Gaiman's book, and as in Selick's adaptation of the eccentric children's writer Roald Dahl's James and the Giant Peach (1996), Selick preserves the spirit of the source material by giving it literally moving, cinematic life without robbing it of its quintessence. Coraline is a rather unnervingly eerie story about a pre-teen girl (voiced here by Dakota Fanning) who finds her parents unpalatable to her wishes and desires. Her mother (a terrific Teri Hatcher) ignores her and the food she makes for her is uninspired; her father (John Hodgman) is too busy at his computer for his work to spend much time with her. Coraline sees herself as a child alone, in a gray, downcast world. If only she could escape.
It could be said that Coraline is perfect children's nightmare fodder because Selick makes the film follow nearly flawless nightmare-logic. In an impressive credits sequence that opens the film, a pair of menacing metallic hands hurriedly de-construct a doll, pulling out its button eyes and in an act that may linger in the minds of children, rip the innards of the doll out, after which the doll is re-fashioned, unmistakably looking like the film's heroine. Coraline as a narrative incisively comments on the remaking of children—through sundry forms of medication, for instance—as “happy.” Gaiman's story supersedes the potentially banal conclusion to be reached from his own tale (which can admittedly be useful as the film's tag-line—“Be careful what you wish for”); Coraline is in part about systematic perfecting of the corporeal at the expense of the spirit's obliteration. When little Coraline discovers a secret passageway to an alternate world, she initially believes she has found a panacea; her “Other Mother” (again voiced by Hatcher) cooks lavishly spectacular meals for her, and her “Other Father” (Hodgman, again) helps oversee a breathtaking garden that plays into the worst, most narcissistic impulses of children.
The blue-haired Coraline is put through the emotional wringer that hurts the most. Acceptance may be the story's most pointed “message”: at last, Coraline must begrudgingly accept her parents, as well as the strange and bizarre cast of neighborhood characters (two washed-up, has-been burlesque queens, Miss Spink and Miss Forcible and a hilarious Russian acrobat and trapeze artist named Mr. Bobinsky voiced by Ian McShane) who inhabit her world. The “Other World” characters are more superficially arresting, with more colorful personalities, but the superannuated qualities of the “real world” characters is gradually viewed in a new, radicalized light once Coraline realizes that the “Other World” is one horrifying snare run by the “Other Mother.” Only a talking black cat (perfectly voiced by Keith David) can move about each world along with Coraline, bringing childhood imagery full circle through gentle subversion: that which appears evil, such as a notorious haunter of bad luck like the black cat, proves indispensable to fighting against what looks like a heaven-sent paradise.
Dreadful menace permeates Coraline, and even the way in which Coraline moves about the Narnia- or Secret Garden-like entranceway connotes trepidation and tumult. To make this precisely, cinematically tangible, Selick utilizes stop-motion animation, which was an enriching choice. Like Ray Harryhausen's stop-motion animation, or perhaps the late Stan Winston's effects work, Selick's undertaking here bridges the human with the inhuman, bringing out an indelible cumulative effect that lends an uncommon verisimilitude to the fantastical. In one of the film's most bravura sequences, Coraline's “Other Father” leads her out to their garden, inviting the flowers to entrance the girl with their dancing. The scene, as well as a long, wonderful sequence in which the two show-business women—made younger and physically beautiful—in the fantasy world enthrall Coraline with a stunning number. Everything about Coraline's fantasy world seems so enticing, but the edifice of the entire facade proves to be one dishonest lure.
Like the merciless metallic hands at the film's opening, Selick brocades a textured, nuanced film. Informed by Gaiman's story, Coraline extrapolates what its imagery suggests: the “Other Mother” and her ilk are not only inhabitants of a child's fantasy world but also those who eagerly blind their progeny and others of the next generation, and therefore themselves. They exist in this world, and the blindness they inflict is just as painful in its many consequences as Hatcher's demonic alter-ego's obsession with replacing Coraline's eyes with buttons. As one ostensibly doomed character tells the blue-haired protagonist, “Find our eyes, and our souls will be free.” Thus, Selick, and Gaiman before him, provides the most elemental property of children's storytelling, wisely transmitting overwhelming concepts into perfectly accessible and understandable visual allegory, without reducing the potency of the amusing skein. The film powerfully stitches the truism that nothing is more pathetic than those who are so determined to enjoy themselves that they either help to create very industries based on such concepts or supply the demand for them. From Doctor Phil to the latest pill, to the “Other Mother,” faux contentment and happiness is not to be cherished or desired. If little Coraline can learn that, perhaps everyone can.