“You know, you could stay forever, if you want to. There's one tiny thing we have to do first...”
Whilst The Nightmare Before Christmas is mostly regarded as being Tim Burton's, the largely unsung hero of the classic stop-motion animation fantasy is actually its director, Henry Selick. Although Burton conceived the story and the characters, he was hardly around for the film's lengthy production - helming, instead, both Batman Returns and Ed Wood (so I guess we can let him off then, eh?) - whilst it was Selick who lived and breathed the Santa-snatching saga and, by virtue of his devoted hands-on style, breathed life into Jack Skellington, Sally, Oogie-Boogie and all the rest of the spooky tribe. Hailed, justifiably, as a veritable king of such charming effects showcases, with the undervalued James And The Giant Peach to his credit as well, a new puppet-populated project from him has been a long, long time in coming.
Which makes the dark fantasy of Coraline such a rare delight.
Based on Brit-fabulist Neil Gaiman's award-winning 2002 novella - a story which took him an unbelievable ten years of little nightly writing sessions to accomplish ... and all for his daughter - Coraline's movie adaptation arrived at cinemas riding the justified crest of a wave of critical adulation, and no small amount of parental apprehension. Coraline's fantastical tale is, you see, another nightmare, but one that is actually considerably more disturbing than anything the Pumpkin King was ever responsible for. Existing in a quasi-limbo land between the isolated “reality” of young Coraline (Dakota Fanning) Jones' new home, a rickety, dilapidated old mansion-house on the edge of a gloomy mountain valley and stuffed by oddball eccentrics, and the startling “Other” side, in which the girl's parents and neighbours have somehow been transformed into colourfully bizarre alter-egos. Ignored and neglected by her busy mum and dad in the real world - they are hell-bent on getting their garden furniture and plant brochure published - Coraline takes a leaf out of Lewis Carroll's book and goes wandering down an equally mysterious hole in search of excitement, adventure and, well, just some attention. The hole in this case has nothing to do with rabbits, instead it is a tunnel stretching out behind a little trapdoor in the wall, and what Coraline finds on the other side may start out resembling a small-scale Wonderland, but quickly changes into something far more sinister. Meeting her “Other Mother” and her “Other Father” (voiced by Teri Hatcher and John Hodgeson, who also supply the tonsils for their real-world variants) proves delightfully touching as the pair simply seem to live in order to cater for Coraline's every need, making her visits to the “Other House” joyful, entertaining and full of fun, affection and good food. Whilst they may, rather unsettlingly, have buttons in place of their eyes, they are glowing with such wit and spontaneity that she becomes more and more smitten with the alternate world at the other end of the tunnel. But, going to sleep in her entrancing Other Bedroom every night, Coraline is disappointed to keep finding herself back in her grotty, threadbare old one when she wakes up in the mornings.
Things are not what they seem, however. As the bond with her Other parents thickens, so too does the net that has been thrown over her, for it soon becomes apparent that all this love and affection has been nothing but a sham and that her Other Mother has some very nasty intentions for Coraline. Hansel And Gretel, Snow White and any number of other fairy stories provide the traditional backbone of moralistic warning as it becomes abundantly apparent for Coraline that she should have been a little more careful in what she wished for. Sometimes, the grass may be safer on this side of the fence, even if it is not so green.
The voice cast is eclectic - as is only right in such an avant-garde fantasy. Ian McShane eschews his foul-mouthed frontier doggerel from Deadwood in favour of a liberally comical Eastern European vowel-mangling as Mr. Bobinsky, the acrobatic ringleader of a circus of trained mice who resides in the top apartment. Dawn French and Jennifer Saunders verbally preen and pirouette down in the basement rooms as a couple of aged board-treading divas, in love their former glories and betrothed with the adulation of the footlights. Like Mr. Bobinsky and his troupe of mice, they are emboldened by a veritable army of Scottie-dogs, who languish at their tottering trotters, satisfying their need for an audience on-tap. Fanning issues forth a voice that may be fitting for her not-quite-teenage puppet alter-ego, but is still bursting with the strength and vigour that only a Hollywood-honed child-actor could possess. It is a likeable performance, but it is one that stays just the right side of precocious egotism. Robert Bailey Jnr., as the part-time rebel from over the hill, Wybie, is surprisingly good and affecting in a role that has been created specifically for the film in order to stop Coraline from simply wandering around and talking to herself a lot. At first, his slouchy drop-out loner of a kid seems jarringly out of place, rampaging around the mountain paths on a motorised scooter and sporting an intimidating devil-cum-spot-welder mask but, once you have seen the movie it is hard to then imagine it without him. And, in a clever twist, his Other personality is tragic rather than creepy, finally enabling you to warm to him. The Thing's tough guy mechanic, Keith David, is an amazingly welcome treat as the voice of a somewhat ambiguously motivated black cat who is able to flit from one world to the Other, and able to vocalise his thoughts in the more colourful setting of the parallel house. Somewhat guarded and mysterious, he reminds of the devious griffin in Gaiman's Mirrormask, a friend for some of the time, but certainly nobody in whom to place too much trust.
And, as the parents - irritable in one world, fawning in the Other - Hatcher and Hodgeson are absolutely superb. Hodgeson has one of those immediately mellifluous voices that sounds like melting-syrup oozing from the screen. He soothes the film with a tone that is sleepy, trippy and all-smothering. But he is the softness that floats in-between the two extremes that Hatcher takes her character to. Cloyingly saccharine in Other Mother's initially chirpy, cheerful guise, but scalpel-sharp and acid-tongued once her true intentions are out in the open, the former Lois Lane and Wysteria Lane vixen brings an enormous amount of genuine threat to the wicked witch controlling her side of the dual-dimensioned abode. Easily on a par with the savage enunciations of Eleanor Audley's witch, Malificent, in Sleeping Beauty, or Lucille La Verne's cackling Dark Queen in Snow White, Hatcher inhabits the character with skin-prickling aplomb. Which is just as well, as Selick takes care to furnish her visual counterpart with such a sphincter-twitching countenance and gloating ferocity that anything less from Hatcher would have ruined the spell. Feel your blood turn cold when she issues a deadly taunt to Coraline about the little girl being trapped with her "forever".
As you would expect from such a time-served perfectionist, the puppetry is so smooth, so fluid, so utterly dynamic that it only rarely ever looks like stop-motion animation. Movement is purely organic and seamless. The impression that such animators usually love to give their creations, of invisible hands working them even as we watch, is still in evidence, of course. I mean facial expression still move a little bit too much - every smile, grimace or twitch of the eyebrows is exaggerated as the craftsmen and women just can't resist adding more activity to their progeny - but the form, texture and zest in each character is in a whole other (or Other) league than anything seen in The Nightmare Before Christmas, The Corpse Bride or the Aardman classics. CG embellishment aids the beauty of the more intricate and complex set-ups, but it is refreshingly subtle and only lightly incorporated in a land that is utterly bewitching despite the frequent jeopardy found there.
“You probably think this world is a dream come true... but you're wrong.”
Cinematically, too, Coraline excels. Although the location is predominantly limited to just the house, there is a greater sense of depth, realism and dimensionality than an animated movie has been afforded before. Of course, this is aided no-end by Selick's film being the first of its creative genre to have been specifically shot in 3D, as well as 2D. Yet, whilst no-one would argue that the most satisfying version found on this disc, in terms of colour, detail and vibrancy, is the flat version, even this image offers a surprising amount of depth and deep focus beauty. The real house is grey, old and lifeless, its rooms and halls shrunken and uninviting. By contrast, the Other House is as sparkling and radiant as Willy Wonka's Chocolate Factory. Its rooms and halls are bright, wide and elongated, its aura magnified and energised. Arriving there is like Dorothy stepping out into Oz. Even when things turn nasty the sense of increased scale is terrific. A floor giving way into a vast web-laced void is a spectacular show-stopper. A tight squeeze through a little canvas tunnel takes us into Mr. Bobinsky's Tardis-dimensioned Big Top, and one simple room becomes a vast theatre in one scene, and a veritable cavern replete with Scottie-dog-bat-things hanging from the roof, in another. Other Father's mesmerising garden literally comes to life as we explore it - snap-dragons competing in a semi-menacing tickle-fest, Dreamcoat-coloured flowers unfurling to reveal rainbow frogs within. And, best of all, Other Father's Mantis-tractor can take flight at the pull of a lever and treat us, and Coraline, to a hypnotic view of the immaculate beds, hedges and topiary from up-high. It is no small wonder that we wish to spurn reality in favour of this timeless realm as much as Coraline does.
Selick's original idea was have only the scenes set in the Other House shot in 3D to make the transition between both worlds all the more jarring and captivating, but he rightly reasoned that the effect would be too disorientating and difficult to create. He needed have worried - whichever version of the film you choose to watch the effect is still wondrous once Coraline leaves the miserable shackles of home behind her and steps into this dangerous paradise.
“How dare you disobey your mother!”
Though kids just adore the colourful, boo-hiss villainy of the Other Mother, once her mask has fallen and her terrifying real self is revealed, grownups will possibly experience some uncomfortable cringes at the notion of a small girl being lured into danger and then trapped by nefarious, adult tricksters. The metaphor is plain to see and no less distressing for all the vivid eye-candy that Selick suffuses the screen with. When Coraline begs to be allowed back to her real mum and dad, there is a definite twinge of anxiety and guilt that parents will feel. But though Selick knows this, he also knows that kids will feel not only the delicious frisson of fun-frights, but also feel empowered by the sight of Coraline rising to the challenge, facing down her fears and courageously doing battle with the demons who would seek to devour her, for, as Selick says, devouring - whether it be physically, spiritually, or metaphorically - is exactly what the Other Mother is all about. Don't be fooled by the eye-stealing button fetish that acts as something like a smoke-screen and seems, appropriately enough, to mimic the very style of the film's creation of puppet characters. One of her guises, just before her grotesque true identity is fully revealed looks horribly like Michael Jackson - raven-black hair, drained-white face, hollowed cheeks and a pinched porcelain nose - which, if anything, is even more terrifying, especially considering the subversive Neverland atmosphere of the Other House and the Other Mother's hunger for the company of children. Hmmm ...
A button-eclipse of the Moon, a frantic race to find the eyes (souls) of those previously lost inside the devious lair, the forlorn image of two of the trapped, locked within a snow-globe and the distressing sight of one of the Other Mother's minions coming apart at the seams - quite literally - and its dishevelled form becoming reminiscent of Romero's living dead as it shambles after her, are all potent images that Selick serves up with darkly humorous relish.
“I want to be with my real Mom and Dad. I want you to let me go!”
Of course, none of this is wholly original. The set-up, scenario and denouement is pure Alice In Wonderland and Wizard Of Oz - but Gaiman's prose is sharp and clever enough to provide Selick with acres of interpretation with which to twist and torment the usual conventions of this ever-popular strand of fable-building. In many ways, Coraline is kith and kin with Gaiman's own Mirrormask (see separate BD review). Both stories and films feature a young girl with perceived worries, woes and guilt who seeks to flee from the glumness of a strained family reality into a carnival-like world of beauty, mystery and make-believe. Both meet incarnations of those she knows and loves and both have adventures that seem to swirl around a connection to the performing arts. But whereas Mirrormask is often cold and abstract, Coraline - warmed, perhaps, by Selick's own love for such enchantment - seems genuinely alive, embracing and intimate. Coraline Jones' predicament is much easier to associate with - we've all felt ignored at some point in our lives - and it is therefore far more effective an odyssey to undertake.
But another of the film's strengths lies in its details. Both kids and their parents can associate with the distraction that their relationship can foster. Even your humble reviewer knows how easy it is for a bored child to annoy him with their justified pestering whilst he is trying to write-up the latest Blu-ray release. And the bliss of a surrogate guardian can be an obviously intoxicating lure to a disenfranchised imagination. Coraline Jones also epitomises the attitude of childhood far better than the kids in a dozen other family-oriented sagas from a dozen other studios. Inquisitive and taciturn, vulnerable yet headstrong, she is believably able to turn on a dime - her initial meeting with Wybie goes from fear and suspicion to dominance and female superiority - and capable of a scathing honesty that goes hand-in-poison-oaked-hand with a joyful gullibility. She is the perfect simulacrum of innocence and arrogance. Gaiman's character was a typically empathetic outsider in the book, but Selick makes her a convincing child who is, by turns, confounding, adorable and irritating.
“Be clever, Miss. She'll never let you leave, even if you win the game.”
Although the shaky first act is at pains to establish the characters and their place in the scheme of things, the film's ebullient sometimes cutesy, sometimes menacing tone is brilliantly aided by the mischievous score from Bruno Coulais and his couplet of orchestra and choirs from Budapest. Sounding like a frothy, playful blend of Thomas Newman (darkly melancholy) and Danny Elfman (impishly ethereal), the music for Coraline is a rare delight. There are musical numbers in the film, but they are part and parcel of the characters' situations and not at all superfluous or distracting. The fantastical whimsy of the precocious setting is joyous, light and not without hints of the macabre, but once the masks are off and Coraline is forced to think on her feet and to survive the various trials that beset her, Coulais inverts his themes and turns on the terror. The resulting score is one of the most unusual, zany and versatile to have come along in quite a while.
Now, whilst I've heaped a lot of praise on Selick's work of art, and labour of love, I feel it only proper that I should state that I had a surprisingly tough time actually getting into the film in the first place. For some unknown reason - and looking back now, from a position of positively loving the movie, it seems all the more unfathomable to me - I just couldn't get past the first half-hour or so. Something about it - the story, the characters, the style, I don't know - turned me right off the film and it became a bit of a challenge to see if I could ever get through it all. I love and adore fantasy in all its guises, but there was something here that I just didn't like. Perhaps it was the helter-skelter approach to introducing the characters and the apparent lack of a discernible hook to grab on to. Or perhaps it was simply that Coraline Jones just doesn't appeal in that normal, straight-away manner. She is not your usual heroine. Either way, it took me four attempts to make it beyond the usual sticking point and, boy, am I glad that I persevered! For Coraline is one of the most refreshingly mature and stylish fantasy-horror films to have come along in quite some time. That it is a horror film is not unique, given its influences and pedigree, but the fact that it is a children's fable that doesn't patronise, doesn't preach and is unafraid to show the dangers that kids, themselves, know are only too real, despite our often irresponsible airbrushing of such things, marks it apart from so many other dark tales designed to warn. There is a vein of melancholy running through it - the spectral visions of previous child victims takes us into an altogether more sobering room in the Other House and Selick ensures that every child's fear of the loss of their parents isn't glossed-over in any way - and although for every grim moment there is a garish antidote, the film doesn't cheat us with any daft awakening from a dream type of cop-out. Even the mighty Oz wimped-out in this way. Coraline's horrors are all-too real and, in this way, the film seeks to warn kids (and their parents) in a cleverly entertaining and never-sermonising way that you must be on your guard at all times, for candy-coated killers lurk everywhere.
Coraline is awesome entertainment - insightful and thought-provoking at the same time - and surely one of the most inspired films of the year.