“Huh?” Coraline stops short at the sight of her ‘Other House,’ looming before her. She turns to her feline companion as if to verify that they had indeed departed from that location not minutes before. “But how can you walk away from something and still come back to it?” she asks.
The cat replies in a drawl that implies the obvious: “Walk around the world.”
Based on a novel by Neil Gaiman, Coraline is a dark fantasy that revolves around a young girl named Coraline (not Caroline, as she is often forced to remind her neighbors). Upon moving to Oregon with her deadbeat, overworked parents, Coraline finds herself bored, neglected, and missing her old home. In search of adventure or, at the very least, something to interrupt the unrelenting monotony of the overcast Oregon afternoons, Coraline discovers a small door leading to a parallel world. In this ‘Other World’ everything is the same, but better – better food, better neighbors, better garden, and best yet, parents that actually seem to care about their daughter.
Yes, everything is better – except, that is, for the eyes. Everyone in this ‘Other World’ has buttons for eyes.
Now, if an animated doll staring at you with glazed-over, black button eyes isn’t creepy enough to give you the heebie-jeebies, it gets worse. It soon becomes disturbingly clear that the ‘Other World’ is nothing but a construction, created for the purpose of stealing children’s souls. In a danse macabre, the child ghosts of former victims describe the methods of the ‘Other Mother’:
She spied on our lives,
through the little doll's eyes,
And saw that we weren't happy.
So she lured us away,
with treasures and treats,
and games to play!
Gave all that we asked –
yet we still wanted more –
So we let her sew the buttons.
She said that she loved us,
But she locked us here
And ate up our lives.
Indeed, Coraline Jones is in a very small world. The ‘Other Mother’ has created a realm that centers entirely around our little blue-haired protagonist. But Coraline exists in a small world in more ways than one, for as it turns out, the 'Other Mother’ has quite a lot in common with a certain director with a penchant for imbuing inanimate objects with life.
At the time of its release in 2009, Henry Selik’s film, Coraline was the longest stop action film in existence. Now, when it takes an entire week for a fully staffed crew to produce approximately 90 seconds of footage, you can be pretty sure that the selected medium was chosen for a reason (masochistic tendencies aside). Stop action - Claymation in particular – generally involves the incremental manipulation of figures to act out a story. In the case of Coraline, a 140,000 square ft. warehouse was transformed into the 150 sets that compose Coraline’s world. Extensive research was done on the real-world locations portrayed so the film would appear stylized but accurate, the set was filled with hand-crafted dolls (fun fact: a woman named Althea Croem was hired purely for the purpose of knitting miniature sweaters. Sometimes her needles were no thicker than a single human hair), and the film was shot using the dual camera technique to create a 3D look.
Hmmmmm. Intense research on outside source material, a miniature world, dolls operated by unseen hands and made three dimensional… Sound familiar?
The medium of the film reflects the story itself. Pretty neat, huh?
Now, I will say, I have mixed feelings about Coraline – there are certain aspects of the film that I adore and others that bug the heck out of me. I think I’ve already expressed how much I enjoy the self-awareness of the film, but more than that, I love the stylization. Coraline is a film that knows what it is – it has a great sense of humor, it’s exceptionally creative, and the soundtrack is so good that I’m pretty sure I bought within 24 hours of leaving the theatre. That being said, it’s pretty hard-hitting when it comes to the ‘neglected child’ thing and doesn’t do nearly enough work when it comes to humanizing Coraline’s real parents. What’s more, the ending (a neighborhood garden party on a sunny afternoon) rings with the falsity of a fairytale – a tone which seems quite out of place given the general propensities of the piece. It feels forced, tied up with a bright red bow and thrown at the reader as if to say: “Here. Have a happy ending.” It blatantly ignores the fact that basically nothing has changed in Coraline’s real life and, in a day or two, Coraline’s parents will go back to their work as usual. Not to mention the fact that Coraline’s probably going to suffer from deep psychological issues. Oh, and don’t forget the three children who were murdered and had their eyes gouged out. But sure, let’s end the film with a garden party!
I would tend to say, if you’re going to go the route of a dark fantasy, you should commit. The film does such an amazing job of constructing this incredibly unsettling aura, but all that work goes right out the window in the last five minutes. The 'Other Mother' is possessed by a desire to have things 'just so.' Consequently, even though her world is supposedly perfect, it has a wrongness to it – it feels too contrived. The movie itself (intentionally or not) possesses the same wrongness and a lack of natural progression that is positively infuriating. That is not to say the film is not enjoyable (in fact, I highly recommend it) but it does leave certain things to be desired.
BONUS: I also highly recommend perusing the CoralineTheMovie YouTube channel. They have some wonderful stuff in there about the making of the film. It’s fascinating!
Take a look: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5FfFaj2eRcQ