I prefer it to The Nightmare Before Christmas, although that film's also immense. That's the obvious comparison, both being gleefully wicked stop-motion animated movies that are approximately for children, directed by Henry Selick. Tim Burton didn't direct that film, despite the popular impression, but instead wrote the script (and played Jack Skellington's singing voice).
Obviously they're both great. The Nightmare Before Christmas is more iconic and I'm crazy in love with its Halloween Land, but only one of its songs has any welly (Oogie-Boogie Man) and the others are a bit dreary. I still like them, mind you. They have flavour. However it was a good move to take the songs out of Coraline. This film is never going to have the same public profile as the other, but it's found a unique kind of dark fantasy and I thought it was really good.
To get the obvious bit out of the way, it's based on a book by Neil Gaiman. I think I've even read it. It's fairly slim, being a fantasy/horror children's book, and to be honest I don't remember it too well. I'm pretty sure I liked it, but this adaptation impressed me a good deal more. This is what adaptation should be doing. It's taking Gaiman's fantasy and bringing it alive with stop-motion eyeball kicks, making an already strong story more memorable. I'm not bashing the original at all, mind you. The storyline's fine and the ideas are creepy, but this is the kind of material that needs to sink its fish-hooks into your imagination. Everything here depended on the production and how well the ideas are being realised. If the BBC had made Coraline in 1996 while Henry Selick did a stop-motion Neverwhere, then the former would now be forgotten while I'd be raving about the latter.
I liked Neverwhere, by the way. It might be my second-favourite bit of on-screen Gaiman, although I also like Stardust
. Beowulf's okay but I had no interest in its empty-headed Vikings, while I don't have strong feelings either way for Gaiman's episode of Babylon 5
Anyway, Coraline. The story involves a girl called Coraline whose parents are always busy and whose dinner is usually strange. They've just moved house and Coraline's grumpy, but then she finds a secret door to a reflected anti-house where her parents are super-cool and quite possibly have magic powers. The boy next door seems to think there's something dangerous about it, but he's weird. There's only one odd thing about it. Everyone in the Other House has had their eyes removed and buttons sewn to their faces instead.
Sure enough, Coraline's Other Mum turns out to be someone you wouldn't want even in the same universe as you. My least favourite thing about the film is its heavy-handedness in how it handles this revelation, having the Other Mum morph into an evil witch-like form who then imprisons Coraline with the talkative ghosts of her previous victims. However in fairness I'd read the book. I knew what was coming. At least they're not confusing the kiddie audience, instead running the opposite risk of killing them stone dead. You've got to love a film like that. Besides, it's hard to see the more delicate souls making it through the title sequence, in which a doll gets its features pulled off its head before being disembowelled and turned inside out. Fortunately it really is just a doll. We see it getting a new face and being sewn up again. The scene's also significant for what comes later. However it still struck me as pretty horrific for a stop-motion animated film, since at that point we didn't know for sure that that hadn't been a person.
What I find interesting about the fantasy is Selick's gradation of it. We begin with that gothic title sequence, but then pull back into comparative realism. Coraline meets the boy next door (who's not in the book) and their conversation is that of normal kids. When she goes home, her parents are working at their computers. This is mundane, deliberately. Furthermore the character relationships are far less idealised than in most children's films, with Coraline being a bit of a brat and her parents being busy and dismissive. You don't hate anyone. You're not being pushed to take anyone's side. I thought this was impressive, actually. It's normal for children's films to paint its characters in the strongest possible blacks and whites, but this film's dealing in subtleties of grey.
The wacky neighbours are outrageous, admittedly, but none of them are bad people either.
Then Selick starts pushing this somewhere else. What's cool about the Other World is how long it takes for the magic to become actual magic. It's almost believable. We don't jump straight into Disney talking furniture, but instead into a world of Professor Branestawm gadgets and other peculiarities that look mad, but not immediately ludicrous. You can almost imagine it happening. Soon impossible things start taking place... but it's a creeping genre shift, in which the marvels are probably mechanical. That's Selick's starting point, from which he never stops building until eventually we're in full-blown The Nightmare Before Christmas mode and we're being treated to a new height in beauty and craziness for the medium of stop-motion animation.
The make-or-break cast member was of course Dakota Fanning (aged 15) in the title role. Fortunately she's great. Her Coraline is bratty without being unsympathetic, which is quite a trick. Those shades of grey I was talking about are being reflected in her performance. Apart from her I didn't notice anyone else's voice work, which means they're doing their job. Well, almost. There are three bewildering cock-ups where the film lets through a really bad line delivery, but otherwise it's all smooth and professional. There's also a high level of Britishness in the cast, with Ian McShane as a Russian loony and a pair of theatrical ladies played by French and Saunders.
Sumary: it's creepy and eventually even downright nasty, which I like. It's kids' horror. It's also outclassing the original book (which I think I liked) by a country mile, as far as I'm concerned. The facial expressions are CGI but otherwise it's proper stop-motion, with for instance 28 Coraline puppets, of which building just one took ten people 3-4 months. Story's good, animation's fantastic and I'm now definitely going to be watching Selick's James and the Giant Peach. Maybe even Monkeybone too, although that's live-action with Brendan Fraser. One-line summary: an evil Alice in Wonderland, but more warped and with richer gradations in its fantasy.