The grotesque is something you really don’t see in many children’s films. Today’s big successes – the Pixars, the Harry Potters – deliver broad chuckles, wide-canvas thrills and eye-popping visuals, yet in terms of depth, subtlety and pure imagination come up a little short.
Not to tie oddity with inspiration, but for all their well-crafted charm and brilliance, modern family classics such as Toy Story, or even Wall-E peddle a mundane sort of fantasy, lacking the expressive weirdness found in some of the best children’s literature from the 19th and 20th centuries. Coraline, the new stop-motion 3D film from director-artisan Henry Selick, bucks this trend with admirable, awesome skill.
Adapted from the original novel by author and geek icon Neil Gaiman, Coraline starts slowly and gracefully, impressively shying away from relying on early peaks and other attention-grabbing stunts. Instead, the audience is introduced to the title character as she adjusts to life in a new house with her writer parents. Coraline (Dakota Fanning) must make her own entertainment, as her mother and father (Teri Hatcher and John Hodgman) are both distracted, typing away on their computers at work on a gardening catalogue.
Luckily for her, they live in a large, Addams Family-style mansion called the Pink Palace, which is also home to a barrel-chested Russian gymnast Mr. Bobinsky (a hilarious, Russian-dropping Ian McShane) and two retired actresses Miss Spink and Miss Forcible (Jennifer Saunders and Dawn French). The old mansion houses many secrets, including a hidden doorway which appears to be bricked over,; but, at night, Coraline is transported to an eerily alluring Other House. This world is populated by alternate, fantastic versions of her nearest and dearest, with one common difference – their eyes have been replaced with big, black buttons. Presiding over this realm is the Other Mother, whose initially ideal demeanour (and constant attention and affection) gradually erodes away into something a lot more sinister.
Selick’s Coraline is shot through with a healthy dose of the macabre; indeed, Gaiman’s source novel reaches back stylistically towards Roald Dahl, Lewis Carroll and The Brothers Grimm, creating a wildly imaginative tale with creepy, chilling undertones.
The book and the film manage to cook up an intelligence when dealing with its central character and her story. Coraline is a clever, strong-willed adventurer – not a daddy’s girl or a damsel in distress – who looks on adult life with an equal amount of perplexity and weary boredom.
The Other house, meanwhile, manages to symbolise the allure of the unknown, the joy of constant play and the ideal of domestic bliss while still creating a tangible sense of off-kilter tension. This atmosphere avoids simple binaries and extremes, communicating that something is a little wrong even before Coraline is given a present by her Other Mother – a box containing a needle, some thread, and two shiny buttons.
Crucially, the film looks both beautiful and surreal. In adapting the work for the screen, Selick has expanded and warped Gaiman’s story, which very much divided the fantastical and the mundane sides of Coraline’s journey. In the cinema, each scene bursts with creative energy, as Selick balances his multiple design influences and flights of kooky fancy.
This results in some wonderful moments of expressionism and characterisation, such as Coraline’s bleary-eyed, crane-necked real father, looking like a Ronald Searle or Gerald Scarfe satirical figure come to life. His counterpoint is the Other Father – a smoke jacket wearing, piano playing hipster, who bashes out They Might Be Giants micro-pop, and rides around his psychedelic garden on a mechanical insect-wagon.
The film itself is a triumph of craft, from the hand-made miniatures and settings, to the artfully-framed direction and Bruno Coulais’ eclectic, nuanced score. The 3D treatment, one of many films pioneering this new cinema spectacle format, is used with surprising subtlety, providing an early shock as a needle pokes through a length of fabric towards the viewer in the opening credit sequence, before settling in to creating an illusion of depth and space in the screen.
One quality that stop-motion films have over CGI is a sense of real texture, and this is heightened by the 3D format. However, this technical charm would be nothing without the simple, stylistic economy of its story; it is refreshing to be told a tale that does not over complicate matters with ambitions of great deeds or epic encounters, or over-crowd the stage with a bulked-up cast. Furthermore, it is lovely to see a film that excites as much as it challenges. For sure, Coraline is a spooky treat.
Coraline opens in the UK on 8th of May