At the end of the screening of Coraline I saw, a child exclaimed, "That was the scariest movie I ever saw!" Indeed. There is much about Coraline to frighten young children. It's not a movie filled with the conventional frights and grisly violence of the sort that delights teens and dominates multiplex screens. Coraline is filled with quiet dread, and eerie, creepy, somber anxiety. It's not the kind of movie that tries to induce screams, but instead inspires a deeply felt tingle and a chill, an intuitive sense that something is not right. It is also quite extraordinarily beautiful, and very knowing in its depiction of its heroine, Coraline Jones, a young girl just old enough to notice what dolts her parents are.
Coraline, written and directed by Henry Selick (The Nightmare Before Christmas, James and the Giant Peach), and based on the novel by Neil Gaiman, is an exquisite and meticulously-detailed stop-motion animated film. Selick fills every corner of the screen with imaginative visual details, and the animation technique, which uses sculptured models that move through 3 dimensional space, gives the whole film a visual depth (it is being shown in 3-D in some places) that is matched by its depth of feeling, and its psychological insight.
Coraline Jones (voiced by Dakota Fanning), like many a plucky, brave literary heroine, is lonely. She and her parents (Teri Hatcher and John Hodgman) have recently moved from Michigan to Oregon. Impatient, busy, and self-absorbed, the parents, who write about gardening but do not appear to like gardening, stare at computer screens and have little time for Coraline, or for the mundane details of family life. They all live in a big, pink Victorian house. Eccentric neighbors occupy apartments in the attic and basement. Upstairs, there's Mr. Bobinsky (Ian McShane), a Russian acrobat with trained circus mice. Downstairs, there are retired vaudevillians Miss Spink and Miss Forcible (British comediennes Dawn French and Jennifer Saunders), who live with several Scottish terriers. Coraline also encounters a knowing black cat (Keith David) and his boy Whyborn (Robert Bailey, Jr.), Whybie for short, a lad every bit as lonely as Coraline, and even more awkward.
When Coraline discovers a small, secret door in the old house, it reveals another world, much like her own only better, with loving, attentive parents, delicious meals, abundant gardens, and many amusements to delight a young girl. The door opens only at night, and Coraline's night world is a dream come true -- it's all too perfect. There's a catch, of course -- everyone in the parallel world (the same peculiar neighbors are there) has buttons for eyes, and Coraline will have to follow suit if she wants to stay. Will Coraline trade her soul for this garden of unearthly delights? Her Other Mother has a needle and thread ready for the gruesome rite of passage.
There's an intricate and matter-of-fact interweaving of imagination and fantasy with everyday reality that enhances the enchanting fairy tale quality of Coraline. And like good fairy tales, this one plumbs the depths of the unconscious, and taps into all the confusion, yearning and mixed desire of the adolescent mind, and also the plucky resilience. There's a spellbinding witch, of course -- the monstrous Other Mother with her aggressively needy and predatory maternalism -- and an heroic quest that will require lots of good magic of the sort that only a courageous, clever, grounded girl like Coraline can conjure.