How often does your jaw actually drop? Not in a metaphorical way: in an actual, gobsmacked, eye-popping way? Because in Coraline I actually felt it happen. Not at the amazing jumping mouse circus. Not at the astonishing magical garden. Not at any number of extraordinary moments in an extraordinary film, but at a point I absolutely hadn’t expected, and certainly won’t give away to you now.
Coraline is one of those rare films that makes you remember what films are for. It’s primal, beautiful, passionate story-telling that hooks you, holds you and moves you, without you ever knowing what will happen next. And it’s made with such love, care and attention that I doubt one viewing is enough.
The set-up is simple: Coraline, a bored, stroppy pre-teen with blue hair and chunky boots, moves with her parents to a spooky old house in the country, shared with two old women and a Russian mouse-wrangler. Her parents are writers on a deadline, stressed and over-worked, and they don’t have much time to play, so Coraline sets to exploring the house. And finds a mysterious locked door …
The door, of course, is a portal to another, magical world: but in Coraline this world has a house just like hers, a garden just like hers and parents just like hers. Except that these parents have all the time in the world for her, not to mention wonderful food, a beautiful garden and the best bedroom that a girl could want. It’s so lovely, indeed, that she’s tempted to stay. If only there wasn’t just one curious detail:
Ah yes. Because Coraline is, at heart, a horror film. It’s a horror film because it’s a fairy tale: a story that plays on dark realms of our psyche, and makes old, elemental dramas fresh and new: a family movie in which the villain is a mother. It’s creepy, unsettling and haunting, and will no doubt cause some nightmares — and not just amongst kids. But it’s also full of humour, and takes the time to add the grace notes that make a film rewatchable: the Scottie dogs seem destined for a movie of their own.
The other element that really distinguishes Coraline from most animated pictures is the quality of the characterisation. There’s a deep empathy to the film that gives everyone a second hearing, and a chance to be seen through different eyes. At the heart of the story is a simple plea against simplistic judgement, whether of the ageing performers, the stressed-out parents or the annoying kid next door. The other grass seems greener, as Coraline discovers, but it may well be poison oak.
And it’s stop motion animation, every frame. I’d never recommend a movie just for its technique, but this is a dazzling example of the craft. Every character, every prop, every landscape has been sculpted, posed and photographed, and if you get a chance to see it in 3D you really should. Because this is a 3D movie, but it’s 3D as it should be: you never feel that story has been sacrificed for novelty. Indeed, it’s used in a very precise way, as director Henry Selick explains:
I was trying to use the 3D as a story-based device, to suck the audience into the other, better world. Just as Coraline is being sucked into it. So I came up with this idea that in the real world, all the sets would be crushed. I knew that if I raked the floors and the ceiling and the walls so the kitchen only has about a foot of depth, it’s really claustrophobic. But the Other kitchen: that kitchen’s about six feet deep. I was trying to make it feel like you can breathe in the Other world.
So who is Coraline for? I doubt that I can persuade too many adults to see it; the screening we went to was almost deserted. It’s also, perhaps, not for the ICA crowd; it’s not Jan Svankmajer or the Quay Brothers, it’s a mainstream movie with celebrity voices and a happy ending. But we can all get too snobby about “the system”: this is truly a passion project, from an independent animation studio. Henry Selick describes the movie as “for brave children of all ages” and I think he’s right: it’s a family film to rank with the best of them, from Pinocchio to The Wizard of Oz, and we should feel lucky to be the first generation that gets to enjoy it.