Being frightened is an underrated quality of childhood in our often overprotective parenting environments. We fear scarring our kids and we value their innocence so we do everything we can to shield them from the darker side of life. As a parent of two myself, I completely understand the instinct and am entirely susceptible to follow it. And yet, when I look back to my own childhood there was nothing more thrilling or exciting than stumbling upon a book, movie, or TV show that absolutely scared me. True, they gave me sleepless nights and left me still to this day slightly afraid of the dark, but the visceral thrill of those ghost stories of R. L. Stine that I read, or that episode of X-Files I sneaked when my parents weren’t looking, or the sheer terror on seeing Michael Jackson’s Thriller remain some of my fondest memories of childhood.
All this to say that Coraline is without a doubt a movie that is going to scare children. And it completely intends to scare children but there is something fantastic about that. Coraline is an adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s book by Henry Selick (The Nightmare Before Christmas) and tells the tale of a precocious girl who is forced by her horticulturist parents to move from her home in Michigan into a run-down mansion in Oregon that has been converted into apartments. Though she is frequently bored and mildly unpleasant, her acerbic nature is a direct result of the complete disinterest both of her parents pay her in their quest to finish their gardening catalogue for the publishers. Left to her own devices she decides to explore her apartment complex, first meeting some of her eccentric neighbours and then stumbling into a parallel if more magical and bizarre world hidden behind an old sealed-off door.
It is when we step into this parallel world that we begin to see just how brilliant Coraline is because the story is clearly told from the perspective of a tween girl, and not just a grown-up’s approximation a tween girl’s thoughts and behaviors. The parallel world is magical to Coraline because it is everything that her current life is not. There is an Other Mother, who cooks, cleans, and maintains a house of domestic perfection in stark contrast to Coraline’s real mother. And her dull but kind father is a pale comparison to Other Dad, who is full of whimsical joy and more importantly only has time for his sweet Coraline. Together these two Other Parents inhabit a picture perfect world in which every corner is filled with a seemingly endless amount of possibilities and wonder.
Real World vs. Other World
I completely relate to Coraline’s early joy because as a kid, I spent many an hour daydreaming about better worlds with better roles for myself within them. The lure and pull of those daydreams is powerful. For Coraline, the temptation to leave her less-than-ideal real world for the fantasy is almost too strong to resist, except for one crucial detail that sullies her seeming paradise. In the Other World, all the people in them eerily have their eyes replaced with buttons and for Coraline to truly join this world, it would mean she would have to give up her eyes as well. It is at this turn of events that the Other World changes from being idyllic to something more sinister, and the nature of the narrative lands firmly in the morality play category.
The second half of the movie is a truly terrifying parable as Coraline tries desperately to extricate herself from her fantasies. It is scary not just because the creatures in the Other World increasingly become more sinister, but because the story explicitly suggests the dangers of extricating ourselves from our realities, as boring as they may be, in favour of a more disembodied fantasy life whose veneer is more shiny. I’m not sure Neil Gaiman and Henry Selick envisioned a world where our lives are increasingly lived in the cloud and on the cusp of commercially available VR, but their warnings to us (and our children) are particularly prescient. And in a bold move for a children’s movie, it dares suggest that there is great value in our dull, boring, and imperfect world simply because it is actually real.
Of course, when the morals are stated as plainly as I have just laid them out, it can come off as incredibly preachy. But what works in Coraline‘s favour is that the filmmaking is far too intricate, beautiful, and subtle to have its underlying message dominate proceedings. Thanks to the exceptional stop-motion animation at play, every frame of this movie is an absolute wonder too look at. This is true even in the dull interiors of the real world as much care and thought has been put into even the most minute details to create a vibrant movie. In addition the stop-motion truly aids in the storybook quality of the film, instantly creating an eerie but beautiful atmosphere that is both unsettling and hypnotic. While focusing on the craft of filmmaking itself often detracts from the story being told, you cannot help but admire the amount of work and care that went into the extremely painstaking process of bringing this film to life and the end result shows the work was worth it.
Both worlds equally entrancing and eerie
The movie’s other departments also acquit themselves well, whether it is the music score which establishes and enhances the storybook nature of the film or the voice actors who help infuse the movie with both is wonder and menace. While the third act of the movie moves too quickly to resolve the plot in a meaningful way it still manages to be moving thanks to the excellent first two-thirds of the movie. Ultimately the only real thing that keeps me from labelling the movie as perfect is the nagging suspicion that at the end of the day this movie still may be too scary for its target audience as it gives Grimm’s fairy tales a run for its money. But for the few brave kids who stumble upon it, and all the adults as well, this movie is a treasure and a perfect complement to the darkening days of Fall.