A little ashamed to admit I never got around to seeing this one. Even though it’s by Creator of My Awesome Childhood Nightmares director Henry Selick, and based on a book by Brilliant Nightmares scribe Neil Gaiman, I’d assumed that this was a film aimed at kids.
Wrong! Coraline is a whimsical, dark fantasy tale about a lonely young girl (Dakota Fanning) who discovers a portal to another dimension in her new home. The “Other” World is bright, colourful, cheerful and has counterparts of people she knows in real life, and they’re all much happier and successful. She even has an Other Mother (Teri Hatcher) and an Other Father (John Hodgman), both of whom are confident, warm people, and lavish her with the attention and family activities and scrumptious dinners that her harried parents don’t have time for.
She quickly gets over the fact that they have black buttons for eyes.
Feeling ignored by her mum and dad and alienated in her new surroundings, she starts to spend more and more time in the Other World, ignoring the rather sensible warnings of a series of jumping mice belonging to her new blue-coloured Russian neighbour Mr. Bobinsky (Ian McShane).
As soon as Coraline enters the Other World, I very much got an Alice in Wonderland vibe, only more macabre and at times very psychedelic. While the main point is that the Other World is the complete opposite in every way to Coraline’s real world (it’s more fun and more Coraline-centric, and even her chatty neighbour is “silenced”), it’s also wildly-designed, such a deliberately OTT contrast from the dreary grayscale clutter and barren walls of her real home. This makes for some utterly stunning character designs and sequences, such a ride through a live, flowering garden on a horse-like mantis that turns into a helicopter, or a fat lady/thin lady cabaret that literally swings Coraline to new heights. After such eye-popping, reality-bending spectacles (and: breakfast food for dinner), it’s not hard to see why Coraline would want to stay.
And that’s where the creep factor comes in. Teri Hatcher plays both Coraline’s real mum, and the button-eyed Other Mother. The latter is a Hansel and Gretel-type demon who preys on lonely children and lures them into what she thinks their perfect family life would look like, only to literally eat their souls to keep from looking like a disjointed, overly-tall metallic spider lady. Her characterisation is terrifying – the ease with which she can be so manipulative, so passive-aggressive, so insidiously-abusive – gave me a bit of a fright.
There’s so much dread built up that the chilling atmosphere is a wee bit wafted off when the plot settles into a quest-based third act that feels plucked from a Choose Your Own Adventure book. Which might have been OK if the film didn’t keep trying to put cling film over its own plot holes.
From a technical standpoint, the stop-motion is so seamlessly well-executed that I forgot I wasn’t watching a live-action film. Every character’s movement, even swishes of hair, is so accurate and natural that I honestly feel so grateful for all the ridiculous detail and expertise on display. As much as Selick is ScareKing of Hallowe’en cinematic magic, I’d love to see him tackle a (fully) Christmas flick.