It’s an easy thing to see the success of Coraline the film resting squarely on Neil Gaiman’s shoulders. Indeed, his sly storybook writing is the base of the film’s narrative, which sees young Coraline (Dakota Fanning) stuck in the day-to-day doldrums of a dreary, lifeless existence in suburbia. Every detail of narrative is very much Gaiman-esque (which, if not yet coined, most certainly will be soon enough). One day, Coraline finds a portal to another world, alike in some ways but different in many others, as though it was built by the same architect in an altered state. There she meets her “other” parents, alike in every physical detail except one: black buttons sewn in where eyes once were. Emotionally and mentally, however, the new parents are polar opposites. While her old ones are overworked and uninterested, her new mother and father spend every waking moment perfecting Coraline’s world. It’s a dream come true, but young Coraline is about to discover that behind every dream lies a nightmare waiting to burst out.
So we have childhood, we have a sort-of modern-day mythic quality, we have a campfire story sensibility, we have something spooky this way coming, and we have what one would call a “charming yet creepy descent into an alternate, surreal world that loosely borrows from Lewis Carroll”. All, indeed, quite Gaiman-esque. Yet, the success of Coraline the film is primarily production-house Laika’s success, lying in their ability to translate the essence of Gaiman’s words into images to wholly transfixing results. The baseline is the film’s stop motion nature, not by any means a new technique. In fact, Coraline’s director, Henry Selick, brought it to popular attention twenty years ago with The Nightmare Before Christmas, but at that time he seemed to only know that people can make a stop-motion film. Here he seems to have learned why one would do such a thing, and what good it can do for achieving a very specific purpose and tone.
In this case, that tone is a creepy storybook charm, equal parts wispy delight and demented, carnivalesque trauma, all filtered through the eyes of a child. Of course, stop-motion or no, the film’s immaculate, elastic construction needs no introduction – it is simply a wondrously made film, hopped up on visual energy and entirely ready to subsume itself to this very direct and pure connection between audience and the formal image. Laika throws all manner of deeply physical yet wryly abstract designs at us, capturing contorted angles as they cascade into each other and break in brittle despair. And they do sheer wonders with the camera, revealing a new depth to the film’s physical world that moves beyond manipulating aspects within the frame, but manipulating the frame itself through some seriously inventive camerawork.
But the real highlight is that stop-motion, lending the film a certain lived-in physicality unknown to other forms of animation. It has weight unlike other animation, and the result is that it feels more homely and “fully-formed” than other animation does at its best. For lack of a better term, it makes the film appear more “real” for the simple fact that it is, in fact, very much a construct that exists in three-dimensional space before us and interacts with human life. At the same time, because we as an audience are not used to this sort of physical space in the world of animation, it is curiously more unnerving and disquieting than a traditional animation might have been. This tension, with the film at once of the real world and not, allows the film a certain beguiling charm that keeps it between worlds; the film wholly exploits this fact to confuse and contort our reality. We’ve never seen anything like it, and it makes us as Coraline the character is – bewitched, spellbound, and wholly seduced by something at once more familiar and more distant than anything we know of home.
However, it isn’t “just the stop-motion”. What the film does with the stop-motion is as arresting and frequently awe-inspiring. I’d like to refrain from specific highlights because the whole experience is positively indulgent with filmic technique, but allow me a little indulgence. My favorite repeated motif involves the film lowering its already low frame rate to convey jerked, angular, partial motion when we expect something more dynamic and fluid. The centerpiece segment for this technique involved a parade of mice, but more subtle moments, involving shadows and, especially, childlike ghosts who float with a certain tragic mournfulness that approaches impressionism in their barely-there presence, are as haunting. This technique, more than anything, reflects Laika being wholly aware of the difficulties of its chosen medium – namely, each frame can take up to hours to set up and photograph. And here they use the simple fact that they need to save money by cutting frames to stunning advantage by realizing that the loss of fluidity that could hurt another film is actually a complete benefit to the storybook horror genre, replacing what we would expect to be fluid and “complete” with something more angular, more demented, and ultimately more alien to seriously disturbed results. More than anything, this represents Laika in full command of its medium.
The absolute highlight of the film, however, is a late-game Spider’s web deconstructed with stunning abstraction and hair-raising ambiguity. What begins in traditional style animation, very much flat and two-dimensional, shatters and cracks to expand like an accordion shot-through with psychosis and glass. The film here brings new meaning to depth of frame and z-axis movement, for it infuses it into its very filmmaking bones. It was released in 3D in theaters, but it doesn’t need the gimmick; the depth of field, relative to most animation, already bequeaths the film with a certain three-dimensionality at its core. The camera itself looks for depth here, finding it in unexpected places and lashing out at us with it, forcing the film out onto us. It surrounds us, makes us its prisoner, and engulfs the air around us, entrapping us in its own world, as it does Coraline herself. In this way, it uses its visual contrast – flat two-dimensionality for Coraline’s mundane “real world” and a stunning depth of field for Coraline’s “fake world” as much enticing as it is unnerving – to disquiet us something fierce. The world switches from one where people move to the left and right but rarely forward and back to one where they positively break off the screen and invade our world, no longer moving across the frame but through it. The effect is transformative, not far from an old William Castle gimmick but felt down to the film’s core and involving like nothing else, a perfect encapsulation of how Coraline’s other world taunts her as much as it chills her to the bone.
To compare to another 2009 masterpiece of childhood chaos, Where the Wild Things Are, Coraline comes off as the less transformative of the two, but also the far more conventionally well-textured and assured in its storytelling. Where the Wild Things Are is a beautiful, poetic mess, but it also carries on it a deep strain, the strain of adults remembering childhood and having no idea what to do with it. For this reason, it is not truly a children’s film – it is not particularly meaningful for children, and it isn’t really intended for them either. Its emotional center is not with them, nor could it be.
Coraline is also deeply disturbing and horrific, but it is much broader and more “fable-like” in tone. If Where the Wild Things Are is in pain thinking about childhood, Coraline appreciates the big, broad emotions of wonderment and horror of childhood from a more honest, direct place, a place of imagination untainted by an adult’s conflict with reason. Thus, the film is un-fussy about it all, deliberately relying on the imagination-scape to construct a world that owes nothing to anyone except its own raw imagery and sound. It approaches everything it sees with a wide-eye, like a child lost in a carnival of their own mind who can’t even begin to figure out how to escape. For this reason, if Where the Wild Things Are is impressionist and distant, Coraline throws us right into it all and forces us to confront childhood with all the emotions pin-balling off each other. If WtWTA was about the inability to understand emotions, Coraline is about an ever-present understanding of them, an inability to escape understanding them with nothing left between the child’s mind and the child. Coraline is a film of effervescent construct, a richly created tall-tale for the ages that captures with uncanny detail the childhood id unaccompanied. It is deeply afraid of itself, and it does everything short of inventing new filmic techniques (and even then I’m not sure it doesn’t) to tell us this. It is a film matched in its visual wonder only by its emotional torment, but it is a masterwork because it sees the two as one in the same.