Sad Hill Media

Film & Lesser Arts with Will Ross, Devan Scott, & Daniel Jeffery.

Nov 3, 2009

Coraline (2009)

by Will Ross

I am always quick to mention that The Nightmare Before Christmas is not a Tim Burton film. Though the concept and story originated with him, he was on set for no more than ten days, and the director of the film was Henry Selick. A look at their respective oeuvres will reveal the truth: Though Nightmare has Tim Burton's hand in it, the stop motion film he would go on to direct, Corpse Bride, has less in common with it than Selick's James and the Giant Peach and Coraline. The latter, latest film shows that Selick is perhaps the best and most imaginative of the very few directors working in stop motion, in contest only with Nick Park.

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Like Selick's other films, Coraline is a fairy tale, this one based on a novel by Neil Gaiman. As could be expected from such source material, the world of Coraline is a dazzling, original, and often creepy fantasy world. The titular character is an 11-year-old girl who is disappointed with the converted mansion in Oregon whose first floor her family has moved into. Missing her friends in Pontiac and feeling neglected by her parents, Coraline is quickly bored with her drab surroundings. The only boy her age in the area is the talkative Wybourne "Wybie" Lovat, who follows her on his handmade motorized bicycle with his adopted cat. Coraline is quickly annoyed by his blabbering and self-centeredness, and after meeting her strange neighbours in the upper and lower flowers of her house, grows lonely and begins to explore the house.

Soon, Coraline discovers a very small locked door that has been covered with wallpaper. After finding the key and cutting off the wallpaper around the door, there is nothing more behind it than a brick wall, until Coraline awakes at night to find mice who lead her to the now unblocked door. Through its passageway, Coraline finds a mansion and yard similar to her own, but more colourful, stylized to appeal to her, and with button-eyed doppelgangers of her parents and neighbours as the inhabitants. (The premise, in many ways, is similar to Pan's Labyrinth.)

Both of these worlds are rendered with extraordinary detail, with the both the weathered, beaten down look of the regular world and the dark, eerily lit looks of the Other world punctuated beautifully by Coraline's brilliantly blue hair. Every object in the film is the product of ingenious design, a prime example being the costumes, many of which were knit with 0.02-inch diameter needles.

Clothes play an important role in the film, with both her real mother and her "Other mother" pushing Coraline to wear apparel she has only disdain for: Dingy uniforms to be worn at school in her world, and buttons to be sewn into her eyes in the "Other" one. In both cases, they entail a commitment into a world Coraline is unwilling to offer, since button eyes in the Other world entail eternal entrapment under control of the Other mother, whose intentions are revealed to be far more sinister than the real one.

The Other mother, who is later revealed to be a witch called the beldam, practices the ensnarement of children by observing them through magical dolls in the real world and designing an Other world to fit their desires. When Coraline learns the truth, the beldam's fake world quickly ceases its pretenses and its residents become hideous and menacing. When she meets the imprisoned souls of other children caught by the beldam's lure, she realises she must escape the increasingly hostile Other world forever by outsmarting the witch.

Its marketing tagline was "Be careful what you wish for...", but that's not the moral of Coraline. Rather, its hero's lesson is to find the magic in her own family and home. Its story is simple, and its visual treats constant, but the true pull of the film is Coraline's dogged determination, sense of adventure, and stubborn rambunctiousness, courtesy of Dakota Fanning in her only appealing performance in recent memory. Thanks to her strong readings and the excellent, mannered animation, the blue-haired adventurer pulls the film's ideas and wonders together as an experience worth being invested in. It's so fun, imaginative, and tightly realized that it earns spot in the small ranks of stop-motion classics.

Are there any other great blue-haired heroes in the history of cinema?


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