Here is what I sometimes tell my younger children when they occasionally wake up in the middle of the night terrified after a nightmare — especially if they wonder why God, or their guardian angel, allowed it to happen to them.
I know it seems like bad dreams are something bad that just happens to you. But I think most dreams, good or bad, are like stories that we tell ourselves — stories that a part of your brain tells to another part of your brain. Sometimes good stories, sometimes scary stories… but stories we make up ourselves, with a different part of our brain. And I think that part of us usually knows what it’s doing — and God knows that. Maybe being scared in a dream helps you to be braver and less scared in the real world. But now that the dream is over, you don’t have to worry about having it again. You won’t, I promise. You’ll see in the morning.
Somehow this feels like the right place to begin with Coraline, a dark fantasy with surreal elements that feel like a story that a little girl tells herself, initially for comfort and amusement, until the disquieting elements take over and the dream becomes a nightmare. Even then, though, there are subtle signs that the little girl is still ultimately in control, still telling the story herself.
Fantasy writer Neil Gaiman says his 2002 novella Coraline was in fact built around themes from stories that his daughter Holly improvised when she was four or five years old — stories about a girl named Holly whose mother gets kidnapped by a witch that resembles the mother. Why would a little girl invent such a theme? Where does that come from? A part of the brain that knows what it’s doing, I suspect.
The choice of stop-motion animation for the big-screen version of Coraline is an inspired one for a story that involves an uncanny rag doll with button eyes that bears a striking resemblance the young protagonist. Dolls, like clowns and carousels, can be charming or magical, but the possibility for creepiness is always just around the corner.
Likewise, stop-motion animation, which involves photographing articulated figures — dolls — one frame at a time, making tiny movements between shots to create the illusion of movement, can be delightful, like Aardman’s Wallace & Gromit and “Shaun the Sheep,” or matter-of-factly miraculous, like The Miracle Maker. Still, the technique seems well-suited to creepiness: Witness Tim Burton’s Corpse Bride as well as the previous efforts of Coraline writer-director Henry Selick, The Nightmare Before Christmas and James and the Giant Peach. (Is it a coincidence that even Wallace and Gromit’s adventures usually take the form of spoofs of thriller/horror films?)
Although the discovery of a parallel world accessed through a magical portal in her parents’ new home is where the weirdness really gets started for young Coraline (voiced by Dakota Fanning), it’s the haunting stop-motion magic of her own world that opens the door to the magic of that other world.
In a dreamlike way, Coraline is intrigued, but not totally freaked out, by the nocturnal discovery of an alternate version of her home, a ramshackle Victorian house with attic and basement apartments, where she meets surreal counterparts of her parents (voiced in both worlds by Teri Hatcher and John Hodgman), the eccentric upstairs and downstairs neighbors, and neighborhood boy Wybie (Robert Bailey Jr.), whose aunt owns the house Coraline’s parents and neighbors are renting.
Even the nightmarish twist that these alternate-world residents, who otherwise look pretty much like their real-world counterparts, have sewn button eyes like Coraline’s rag doll in lieu of real eyes doesn’t send Coraline screaming back to the real world… a sure mark of the dream logic of her adventures.
In fact, doll eyes notwithstanding, Coraline is rather taken with this alternate world, which in many ways she finds preferable to her humdrum real-world life. Her real parents, both writers, are too swamped with work to pay attention to Coraline, or even keep the fridge stocked. By contrast, the Other Mother seems warmly solicitous and cheerily domestic, preparing lavish feasts for Coraline’s visits (in a typically unsettling touch, the parents don’t touch the food themselves), while her father whimsically whiles away his time at a piano keyboard rather than a computer one. The other parents sweetly tuck Coraline into her other bed, and every morning she wakes up in the real world again… for now, at least.
But if the eyes are the windows of the soul, a world of people with doll-like sewn button eyes can’t be wholesome — and presently Coraline becomes aware of the sinister agenda underlying the Other Mother’s sweet demeanor. (Even in the real world, Coraline’s father calls her mother “the boss.”)
Although the film eventually affirms Coraline’s real parents over her fantasy ones, ratifying old wisdom about no place like home and taking care what you wish for, the ending isn’t entirely earned. The film waits too long to attempt the parents’ redemption, and the ending comes off as rote and lacking in emotional connection (a little like the romantic final scene of The Nightmare Before Christmas). A better film might have humanized the parents more throughout the film, perhaps mitigating their unavailability with more conflict and evident affection for Coraline. Perhaps, too, Coraline might have been allowed some petulance and room to grow.
On the other hand, as scary as things get, Coraline is never completely overwhelmed. A savvy cat who travels between both worlds (Keith David) acts as an anchor, and from the moment Coraline challenges the Other Mother to a game it’s clear who’s really in charge.
For stop-motion auteur Selick, Coraline is a technical triumph. Plausibly billed as the most ambitious and sophisticated stop-motion film ever created, Coraline is filmed in stereoscopic 3D (look for a theater offering the 3D experience), with an unprecedented range of complexity and expressive nuance comparable to computer animation.
The characters’ astonishing facial expressiveness is achieved through extensive use of replacement animation, in which a character’s face is not mechanically manipulated from one position to another, but is actually made up of modular components that can be swapped out between frames for, say, a different jawline with a different mouth position, or a different upper head with eyes and brows differently placed. (The Miracle Maker uses the same basic approach, where possible hiding the seams in beards or facial folds; in Coraline the seams have been digitally erased.)
At 100 minutes, Coraline feels a little longer than it needs to, though it’s never boring, and its beguiling world is so lovingly realized that you understand Selick’s reluctance to leave it. With its dark tale of changeling parents and imprisoned souls, Coraline comes closer to the spirit of the traditional European fairy tale than perhaps any other film, animated or otherwise, in recent memory.
Kubo and the Two Strings comes close to being a masterpiece, and one of the two best American animated films in years, the other being Pixar’s Inside Out.
The Boxtrolls is so defiantly weird and bleak, so committed to the bitter end to its grotesque aesthetic and chilly story, that even as the film crashes and burns you can’t help being moved by the hardworking stop-motion animators’ devotion to their craft.
Why does stop-motion animation work so well as a medium for the macabre, from The Nightmare Before Christmas to Tim Burton’s Corpse Bride to Coraline?
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.