*Disclaimer: This review contains some spoilers.*
Laika Entertainment’s first feature film, Coraline, takes Neil Gaiman’s book of the same name and runs with it, expanding it with creepy and colorful stop-motion animation.
The opening credits play over a pair of mechanical hands rebuilding a doll the audience will later come to recognize as a mini version of Coraline, with the blue hair and yellow raincoat. Reeking of symbolism, the entire scene makes one’s skin crawl, prompting thoughts of all those dolls in horror movies as the mechanical claws restuff it and sew new button eyes. After sending the doll back out into the world, the scene fades and the story begins.
Directed and written by Henry Selick, a stop-motion expert in his own right, the film follows the adventures of young Coraline as she explores her new home, the Pink Palace apartments, having recently moved with her busy and detached parents, stay-at-home gardening writers, and the alternate dimension hiding within it. The neighbors are eccentric, the landlady’s grandson is odd, the cat talks, and the masked villain spends more time being ominous than frightening.
The eccentric neighbors – two theatrical friends (Jennifer Saunders and Dawn French), and a mice-training Russian (Ian McShane) – play parts on both sides of the portal to the Other World. In the real world, they’re weird and don’t do much in the way of convincing Coraline that the move was a good idea. Wyborn, or Wybie, is the Pink Palace landlady’s grandson (Robert Bailey, Jr.) and a general sounding board as Coraline speaks; he doesn’t listen very well, likely because he was created firstly for the film so Coraline wouldn’t be talking to herself, but he does play a part in the plot of the story as the one who delivers the opening-credits-doll to Coraline. He features in the Other World as well, though more silently, and he does come to Coraline’s aid in the climax of the film. The neighbors are generally rounded characters, but mostly take stage as props to set a certain tone in the real world and to create a certain tone in the Other World.
The cat (Keith David) is a bit like the Cheshire cat of Alice in Wonderland, though he doesn’t speak quite as nonsensically as Lewis Carroll’s creation. Introduced as a stray that has befriended Wybie, the nameless cat becomes a fixture through the entire film, even in the Other World, where he is not replaced by a ‘better’ version but is actually capable of traveling between the two worlds, as Coraline does. It is there, in that odd purgatory, that the Cat can talk. A bit of a monomythic mentor, the Cat becomes the best of the side characters, offering explanatory quips and dry wit through Coraline’s adventure and ensuing quest.
The Other Mother begins as an idyllic form of Coraline’s real mother and spends two thirds of the film that way. She isn’t outright evil at first, maintaining a Stepford Wives feeling of menace as she presents this fabulous version of the world for Coraline, with more attentive parents, more exciting neighbors, and a Wybie that actually listens. The announcement of buttons for eyes shocks Coraline, but Coraline’s initial refusal, I think, shocks the Other Mother more. Yet, she still does not become a full-fledged villainess; she can’t physically force the eyes onto Coraline, she has to bribe her or win a game wherein the prize is Coraline’s eyes.
When the Other Mother’s true form is more exposed, beginning to reveal the monstrous Beldam (‘La Belle Dams Sans Merci,’ peut être?), Coraline finds herself trapped in a dark room behind a mirror. Though she initially escapes, she first meets three other victims, who all let the Beldam sew buttons on their eyes. The eyes become a scavenger hunt later on as they represent the souls of the previous kidnapped children, an interesting draw from the idea of eyes as windows to the soul. Yet, even after all this, after the Beldam has kidnapped Coraline’s parents – the first direct villainy – and consented to Coraline’s little game, she does not become her full metallic monster form until Coraline returns, having found all the eyes. This is the last fifteen minutes of the film; creepy and antagonistic, yes, but the Other Mother doesn’t hit her stride until the end, which makes the climax feel slightly underwhelming.
The production design is full of colors and fun character designs, carrying the tones wanted by the film and also defined by the original book; that is a caliber of detail to which Selick has already proved himself, working with author visions beautifully in previous films like The Nightmare Before Christmas and James and the Giant Peach. The music too, like a more ethereal Danny Elfman, accompanies and fits the film well, with gorgeous composition from Bruno Coulais.
What do you think of Laika’s first feature film?
Coraline is rated PG for thematic elements, scary images, some language and suggestive humor.