Tim Burton generally gets all the credit for the beloved 1993 stop-motion animated film The Nightmare Before Christmas (the full title is even Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas), but he wasn’t the one in the director’s chair: That was Henry Selick, who successfully brought producer Burton’s story to life in all its magical goth glory. Selick directed another Burton production, James and the Giant Peach, in 1996, a similarly twisted-but-heartwarming tale based on the classic book by Roald Dahl. Peach mixed stop-motion with live action, as did Selick’s 2001 Monkeybone—a notorious flop (without Burton’s assistance) that’s slowly amassed a dedicated cult following.
It’s been eight years since Selick directed a feature film, and whether it’s thanks to Monkeybone’s reappraisal or simply the tides turning in favor of more stop-motion animation, it’s good to have him back. Coraline finds Selick teamed with writer Neil Gaiman, certainly as kindred a spirit as Burton was, and once again telling a whimsically creepy story with a curious child as the protagonist. Gaiman’s work has previously been adapted into the films Stardust and MirrorMask, and Coraline (based on a Gaiman young-adult novel, with a screenplay by Selick) has a lot in common with MirrorMask: It, too, is about a young girl dissatisfied with her family life, who ventures off into a magical world that at first seems appealing but quickly turns sinister.
Here that girl is the title character (voiced by Dakota Fanning), who moves with her writer parents into a mysterious old house in an isolated area. Like any good mysterious old house, this place has a secret unmarked door that just begs to be opened, and Coraline naturally obliges. Through a tunnel behind the door she finds a house that looks much like her own, only populated by loving, attentive versions of her distracted, short-tempered parents. This world is full of wonderful treats and fabulous spectacles, the only drawback being that everyone in it has buttons for eyes. The woman who calls herself the Other Mother (voiced by Teri Hatcher, as is Coraline’s actual mother) wants Coraline to stay forever, but it’s pretty obvious that such a proposition is too good to be true.
Coraline follows a fairly predictable arc that’s familiar not only from MirrorMask, but also from countless children’s fantasy films, going back to Pleasure Island in Disney’s Pinocchio in 1940. Its message, about learning to appreciate what you have, is simple and well-worn, but Selick trusts his audience (whatever their age) to understand Coraline’s motives without overstating them. More importantly, the story’s broad strokes are wrapped in Selick’s amazing visuals, which are as eerie and beautiful as anything he’s come up with in past films. Coraline features some CGI enhancement, but for the most part it’s old-fashioned hand-crafted stop-motion, with all the loving detail and idiosyncratic creativity that comes along with it.
The everyday folks in Coraline’s normal life are as intricately designed as the grotesque creatures of the alternate world, and all work together to create the sense of a place just outside our own reality, but still instantly recognizable. However obvious it is that Coraline will escape her peril, Selick manages to create genuine scares out of the menace of the Other Mother; some young kids might even find the film a bit too intense. Things take a little while to get rolling, but once they do, that intensity is what makes the film special. Selick effortlessly immerses the audience in a surreal fantasia; let’s hope it doesn’t take another eight years for him to get the opportunity to do so again.