Coraline and the value of scary family films

As Laika prepares to release The Boxtrolls, we look back at its earlier stop-motion masterpiece, the horror-tinged Coraline...

When it comes to the “behind the sofa” entertainment of their youth, older readers will have plenty to talk about, from the Child Catcher to the Daleks. For kids, the splashes of horror in otherwise family friendly films are what teach them how not to be scared. In recent years, we’ve seen an even greater resurgence of the horror genre in animated movies.

Features like Frankenweenie and Hotel Transylvania evoked the tropes of classic horror to either pastiche or parody expectations, but we’d go so far as to say that Laika has been stridently leading the charge for horror movies aimed explicitly at a family audience. The Boxtrolls is the third stop-motion feature from the studio, following 2012’s zombie movie ParaNorman and 2009’s Coraline, which is probably the scariest family film of this century.

Written and directed by stop-motion supremo Henry Selick, the film is an adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s Hugo award-winning novella, which is regarded in some quarters as his answer to Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland. The story concerns Coraline Jones, (voiced by Dakota Fanning) an 11-year-old girl who is endlessly bored after moving to a new home with gardening-writer parents (Teri Hatcher and John Hodgman), who are on a catalogue deadline and scarcely have time for gardening themselves, let alone their unhappy daughter. 

Coraline can’t believe her good luck when she discovers a secret door to the Other World, where everyone seems to have buttons instead of eyes. Her Other Mother and Other Father lavish her with good food, music and attention and everything seems brighter than the flat she’s left behind. It seems too good to be true and sure enough, it emerges that Coraline is being lured into a trap that has claimed several unhappy kids before her.

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It’s a good cautionary tale in itself, but the film looks just as ambitious now as it did on its initial release five years ago. At 100 minutes, it’s the longest stop-motion animated feature to date, but it’s not showy about the painstaking effort that went into putting together each frame.

To give an idea of the effort that went in, it would take ten people working for between three and four months to make one Coraline puppet of the 28 which were eventually created for the film. 130 sets were built across 52 different stages, the largest number ever dedicated to a stop-motion film, and after two years of pre-production, the film took 18 months to shoot. 

As another technical landmark, this was the first stop-motion film to be shot entirely in 3D. Released right before stereoscopy really cleaned up at the box office with Avatar, Laika have done a great deal to keep the flag flying for the format, in a market increasingly dominated by computer generated films.

Aardman continue to make a great case for stop-motion too, but their British-ness doesn’t always translate into profitability around the world. Jumping on the 3D bandwagon first and staging the film so that robotic hands and flying insects come flying out at the audience in the typical style of 3D horror movies is part of the reason why this one won over audiences at the box office.

But in a film that warns so effectively against the dangers of falling for superficial things, it would be remiss of us to put Coraline’s appeal down to the visuals alone. Selick’s creepy version of Gaiman’s conceptual world is ruthlessly faithful, sparing no scares in the translation.

It’s also unusual for its pacing, taking a while to build suspense and introduce the more alluring aspects of the Other World before tilting into horror territory.

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It’s all contrasted wonderfully with the beige dullness of the real world. The drunk who lives upstairs (Ian McShane) becomes an Other ringmaster who puts on a spectacular circus with his performing mice. The mad old thespians downstairs (Dawn French and Jennifer Saunders) are transformed into the stars of a glamorous cabaret show, attended by legions of their late, adoring Scottish terriers. 

And when things go south, the skinny neighbourhood cat suddenly has some handy survival tips and the voice of Keith David, becoming Coraline’s companion through the terrible danger that follows. As it turns out, the benevolent Other Mother is a particularly insidious creature, coaxing bored children into her web so she can leech on their need to be loved.

She’s a nightmarish creation, degenerating from button-eyed matriarch to spider-like monster. Gaiman has the ghosts of her previous victims refer to her as “the beldame”, a play on words that refers to both “belle dame” (a French term for a beautiful lady) and “beldam”, (an Old English word meaning hag or witch) and Hatcher’s vocal performance revels in that duality.

The addition of a character who isn’t in the novel, Coraline’s neighbour Wybie is the only concession in the film that smells even a little bit commercially motivated to begin with, as a token boy character in a film where the lead character is a girl. But he also serves a crucial purpose in the adaptation by giving Coraline someone to talk to in a world where the grown-ups won’t listen, and he also gets the worst of the Other Mother’s despicable nature.

Wybie’s talkative nature annoys Coraline in the real world, so Other Mother turns him into a mute and at one point sews his cheeks into a rictus grin in order to try and win her over. Coraline barely registers this first sign of how messed up things really are – that he’s an expendable part of the illusion designed to keep her happy. 

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Other Wybie then risks his own neck to help Coraline escape to the real world when things get bad, and when she returns to the Other World to free Other Mother’s other victims, there’s a very dark  moment where we see his now empty clothes flying on a flagpole from the top of the building. Even though we know this version of the character was part of the illusion, it’s a bone-chilling shot.

Like some of Gaiman’s other works and both of Laika’s films since, Selick milks gothic horror from real childhood anxieties. Coraline is fed up of grown-ups variously ignoring her or getting her name wrong (it’s not “Caroline”) when the story begins and desperate to get out from under her parents’ workload. Although she learns a lesson about the dangers of superficiality, she’s spurred on that journey by loneliness and her discoveries bring her closer to her parents and the pocket community of the Pink Palace Apartments.

Looking at the way in which both ParaNorman and The Boxtrolls have dealt with a similar theme in eclectic ways, Coraline seems like a mission statement for the studio’s mode of storytelling. Aside from pushing boundaries in stop-motion storytelling, they recognise and use the value of telling kids a good horror story, without talking down to their audience. In our book, they’re three for three so far. Long may they continue their scary streak.

The Boxtrolls is released in cinemas on Friday 12th September.