• Post category:Movies
  • Post last modified:April 6, 2022

Coraline: Meeting the Others


Photo: Focus Features

Sometimes, during the awards season, I hate the band wagon. You know what I mean – one documentary or animated film gets all the attention because the category is pretty small. In 2010, everybody simply decided that the wonderful Pixar film Up was the best of the bunch in the animated feature category and it went on to win the Golden Globe, the BAFTA and ultimately the Oscar. There was an automatic feel to it, even though another animated film, Coraline, was also hailed by critics and became a box-office hit. Up deserved its awards, but wouldn’t it have been nice if just one of them went to the equally great Coraline?

Moving to Oregon
11-year-old Coraline Jones and her mom and dad move to the creaky Pink Palace Apartments in Ashland, Oregon. Coraline’s parents are usually busy with work and encourage her to explore the neighborhood. She runs into an annoying boy called Wybie, who’s the grandson of the landlady, and then she finds a rag doll with buttons for eyes… and a hidden small door in her apartment. Her mother helps her unlock it, on the condition that Coraline doesn’t disturb her anymore. It turns out there is nothing but a brick wall behind it.

Later that night, the girl wakes up and follows a mouse to the door – where she discovers that the brick wall is gone, replaced by a long corridor that leads her to an alternate version of the apartment… with alternate parents. Who have buttons for eyes.

Spicing up children’s entertainment
Writing that last sentence gave me the chills. This film may be animated, but director Henry Selick knows how to spice up children’s entertainment with elements of horror and comedy. His Nightmare Before Christmas (1993) was a tremendously enjoyable Tim Burton-esque dark fantasy. Just like Coraline, that film was made with stop-motion animation, but this one is even more ambitious, technically and story-wise. Numerous sets were built and everything was further complicated by the addition of 3D that required stereoscopic camera solutions.

Selick was also inspired by a Japanese animator, Tadahiro Uesugi, who designed the look of the film, coming up with the idea that colors should be muted in the real world and unrealistically bright in the Other World, as if to underscore how easy it is for Coraline to be seduced by her Other parents who do all the things that her real mom and dad are too busy for. The story, which has been compared to Lewis Carroll’s work, was originally written by Neil Gaiman and was much too short for a feature film. Gaiman expanded it with Selick, introducing among other things the character of Wybie who doesn’t appear in the original book, but feels like he could have. It’s a great, initially unpredictable story about how the grass may look greener on the other side, especially to a child who’s gotten used to the flaws of her parents. Sure, there’s something creepy about the idealized version of her mom and dad that she finds on the other end of that corridor… but life there is so sweet, after all!

When the truth emerges, and we understand what message the film is conveying, we’re still hooked because it feels like we’re visitors in a unique, little world that constantly offers treats.

Coraline may be a nightmare, but it’s also funny and engaging, especially when it involves the folks who also live at Pink Palaces, including a Russian acrobat and the hilarious retired burlesque actresses Ms. Spink and Ms. Forcible (made memorable by the always solid Jennifer Saunders and Dawn French). A few scenes with them turn into marvelous musical fantasies that add even more eye candy (and laughs) to a film that’s already got plenty of it. 

Coraline 2009-U.S. Animated. 100 min. Color. Produced by Claire Jennings, Bill Mechanic, Mary Sandell, Henry Selick. Production design, screenplay and direction by Henry Selick. Book: Neil Gaiman. Voices of Dakota Fanning (Coraline Jones), Teri Hatcher (Mel Jones/The Other Mother), John Hodgman (Charlie Jones/The Other Father), Jennifer Saunders, Dawn French, Keith David… Ian McShane.

Last word: “Nobody liked the first draft, including Neil, even though it was incredibly faithful. [When I decided to add the character of Wybie] I realized that Coraline needed someone in her real world to talk to. Another kid seemed the most simple way to go. I set it in the U.S.. I kept a few characters British. Everyone was British in the novel. I wasn’t comfortable rewriting dialogue and trying to hold on to that. And there’s other details. The rhythms of a film are always different than a novel. You always have three acts. In the book she goes to this other world, and it’s very much a real place. I needed to have her go back and forth several times to build up. It’s multiple trips, and I decided to make it seem like a dream.” (Selick, Cinema Blend)



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