Neil Gaiman’s novella Coraline made quite an impact when it appeared in 2002, sweeping up Hugo, Nebula and Bram Stoker awards in its surrealist arms. Now stop-motion virtuoso Henry Selick’s cinematic adaptation has exploded the children’s book into an entirely different orbit, one populated by eye-popping visuals rendered in revolutionary stereoscopic digital 3-D.
While the movie’s protagonist is a brave but bored 11-year-old girl, Selick’s Coraline may send children and adults alike home with dreams and nightmares they may not be able to shake. You have been warned.
Like Alice in Wonderland, The Wizard of Oz and even Beetlejuice before it, Coraline is an allegorical film exploring the value of mundane domestic life by injecting into it equal parts terror and whimsy.
When young Coraline Jones moves with her parents, Charlie and Mel, to the forbidding, wet environs of Ashland, Oregon, she enters, literally and metaphorically, a life painted in drab grays and browns. And while the rain, mud and fog of her new surroundings eventually bring life to everything they touch in the film’s multicolored conclusion, at the outset they are merely the bars of Coraline’s prison, made worse by her always-distracted parents, who have no time to interpolate their daughter’s new experiences.
The isolation leaves Coraline, brilliantly voiced by Dakota Fanning, wide open for more nefarious possibilities. Much to Selick and Gaiman’s credit, it isn’t long before they begin to unspool. Soon a twitchy kid named Wybie Lovat, a character created specifically for the film, and his ominous black cat are stalking Coraline. Wybie then gives Coraline a doll that looks just like her, save for two black buttons where its eyes should be.
Always a red flag for horror and fantasy addicts, dolls are usually empty vessels for identity construction and narrative tension. So are holes and tunnels, both of which make important appearances in the form of a deep well near Coraline’s house, a triplex sarcastically named the Pink Palace, and a tunnel within the Palace itself, which leads to an alternate family, where more exciting and attentive doppelgangers of her parents reside.
Unlike her busy, real parents, Coraline’s Other Mother and Other Father — brought surprisingly to life by Teri Hatcher and John Hodgman — are not domestic nightmares but dreams come true. They shower her with attention, gifts and vivid color, which Selick splashes across the screen without pause to bring Coraline’s seductive imaginary to life. Where her real parents study mud and chain themselves to their computers, Coraline’s surrogate parents can’t function without making her the center of their universe.
But like the doll given to her by Wybie, Coraline’s Others have no eyes, just black, inexpressive buttons — a visual marker hinting at their more dangerous nature. Before long, her surrogate parents state the price for their affections: Coraline’s own eyes, and her soul, locked forever in their world.
That central, existential terror of bereavement and maturity is further accentuated by a phantasmagoric roll call of bizarre characters, from hilarious circus acrobat Mr. Bobinsky (Ian McShane) and his performing mice to Miss Forcible and Miss Spink, riotously voiced by Absolutely Fabulous creator Jennifer Saunders and her comedic partner Dawn French.
French and Saunders play two past-it theater queens whose taxidermy of their dead (and nearly dead) Scottish terriers provide Coraline with some of its most hilarious moments. Also on board is Keith David (Spawn, Princess Mononoke, Justice League, Halo 3), who not only gives the black cat its voice in Coraline’s alternate world, but also saves her bacon more than once. It’s a dizzying supporting cast.
But the true star of Coraline is Selick’s vertiginous animation, which was ingeniously, painstakingly created through a combination of sheer wit and imagination using a dual digital camera rig that nearly beats CGI at its own game. In the hands and imagination of Selick, who directed 1993’s The Nightmare Before Christmas, art like Vincent Van Gogh’s Starry Night and poetry like William Shakespeare’s Hamlet soliloquy “What a piece of work is man” unfurl into vibrating life in Coraline, passing with such splendor and velocity that you don’t even realize they’ve been sourced until you’re on to the next thrilling ride.
When the time comes for Coraline’s horrific showdown with her Other Mother, who metamorphoses into a frightening amalgam of Cruella de Vil and a mechanical Shelob, you’re about ready to crap your pants, no matter your age. Which is yet another testament to the creativity of Selick and Gaiman, who reportedly wrote Coraline about his own daughter’s boredom at her father’s lack of attention while writing … Coraline. (Ahoy, metafiction!)
It takes nerve to craft a horror story about children in this day and age, where glossy wastes like Kung Fu Panda and Hannah Montana have usurped our children’s intelligence and healthy sense of fear. We have come a long way from the uncensored violence of Carlo Collodi’s original 1883 Adventures of Pinocchio and perhaps even Jeunet and Caro’s surrealist 1995 classic, The City of Lost Children. Which is to say, we have lost our way.
But this latest installment of the little-girl-lost narrative may restore the public’s faith in fairy tales that don’t have rousing musical numbers (although They Might Be Giants makes a boisterous appearance in the “Other Father Song”) or plots stripped of danger but brimming with production value. Selick and Gaiman’s cinematic adaptation is a mind-blowing good time masquerading as a coming-of-age tale wrapped in a warning. Don’t miss it.
This article originally appeared in Wired.