Released in 2009, the movie Coraline serves as a stop-motion reimagining of Neil Gaiman’s book of the same name. Written and directed by Henry Selick, along with the support and approval of Gaiman, the dark children’s film opened for the Portland International Film Festival to widespread critical acclaim. Initially, critics responded to the film’s juvenile take to the modern horror genre; Coraline manages to be frightening without the crutches of violence or morbidity, and it’s intriguing that Selick’s creation manages to be simultaneously horrifying yet acceptable for children to watch. The film is dark, inspired, and frightening in an entirely unconventional way.
The film follows a young girl—and the film’s namesake—as she moves from Pontiac, Michigan to a dilapidated, subdivided, Victorian-era mansion in Ashland, Oregon. This mansion, known as The Pink Palace, serves as the backbone for the story, as the other apartments within the house contain an eccentric and grim cast of characters. In the apartment above Coraline’s, the stressfully Soviet Mr. Bobinski spends his days training a circus of mice. Meanwhile, the basement apartment serves as the home of Miss Spink and Miss Forcible, aging former actresses who spend their time doting on their half-dozen schnauzers. The only other child in the movie is the grandson of the landlord, Wiby, who passes the movie squealing by on his dirt bike and hunting banana slugs on the misty grounds of The Pink Palace.
Coraline takes to exploring her new environment, and in doing so stumbles upon a small door that has been wallpapered over. As Coraline falls asleep that night, she finds the door open and passes through into an exact copy of the Pink Palace. She meets a woman who looks exactly like her mother, save for the fact that her eyes have been replaced with a set of shiny black buttons. Within this copy of her normal life, everything has been improved upon; Mr. Bobinski’s mice circus can perform in beautiful coordination, and the old-decrepit versions of Miss Spink and Miss Forcible have been replaced with spritely, beautiful girls who perform acrobatics to a full audience of Schnauzers.
After Coraline establishes herself in the new version of her life, she begins to withdraw from her normal life. Slowly but surely, she shifts her loyalties toward the exciting life through the little door. However, things turn grim when she is given the option to have buttons sewn into her eyes—the key to staying in the world behind the door. The world of treasures that has been created for the protagonist begins to fall apart, revealing the disturbing mind of the woman whom Coraline calls the Other Mother.
The movie remains its integrity as a children’s move through this cast of fantastic characters and unusual scenarios; the imagery of the piece is meant to appeal directly to young children. Claymation serves as a stylistic backbone for a world that treads the line between horror and fantasy. However, it takes someone more grown up to realize how disturbing the entire scenario is: a world that makes promises in return for your eyes. Therein lies the brilliance of the piece. It’s a movie that can take on many interpretations, each more terrifying than the last.
The film’s catchline was “Be careful what you wish for”—as Coraline falls more in love with the world behind the door, the terror of it slowly reveals itself. This is a theme that is notably overdone, but Selick’s novelty is what makes the movie stand out. While the theme might be overdone, the story itself is incredibly inventive. The piece plays on things that can be terrifying: being betrayed by someone who loves you, distancing yourself from the world around you, and having your life taken. These are ideas that are intrinsically terrifying, and allow the movie to pack the punch that it does.
Coraline is inarguably a children’s film that was destined to make an impact. It carries itself with the lightheartedness of a campfire-bound scary story, but the dignity of a movie with a message.