Every one of Henry Selick’s four feature films to date has dealt with alternate realities. In the Tim Burton-produced The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993), the ghoulish Jack Skellington finds a hole in a tree that leads him, Alice-style, from his own reality, Halloween Town, to the very different alt-reality of Christmas Town. In James and the Giant Peach (1996), young James, shrinking like Alice, abandons human reality for a bug’s reality and travels across the ocean in the company of a grasshopper, a centipede, a spider, a ladybug, and an earthworm. Selick’s mostly live-action Monkeybone (2001) leans heavily on the Orpheus model, with artist-hero Brendan Fraser journeying to the Land of the Dead, and Whoopi Goldberg playing a variation on the same role (Death) that Maria Casarès played in the Orpheus of Jean Cocteau. Coraline (2009) represents a return to the Alice model, with a little girl (voiced by Dakota Fanning) who crosses over into a strange looking-glass world.
Looked at from the perspective of stop motion animation, alone, Coraline is a masterpiece. And the 3-D only makes it better. (WARNING – If, like me, you are a fan of both stop motion and 3-D, you owe it to yourself to see this film ASAP. There has never been anything quite like it, and as of this Friday, February 27th, most, if not all, of the theaters presently showing Coraline in 3-D will be dumping it to make room for the Jonas Brothers 3-D concert film.) Certain sequences, such as a circus act featuring what looks like 50 individually animated white mice wearing uniforms and performing in synchronized motion, must be seen in 3-D to be fully appreciated. Stop motion, unlike CGI, gives a film a hand-made quality, and the fact that Selick not only wrote and directed (from a novella by Neil Gaiman) but designed this production in his own distinctive style – free from the influence of Tim Burton – makes it the most personal of his features to date.
Unlike McKean & Gaiman’s MirrorMask, Selick’s Coraline takes pains to ground its story in the real and familiar before plunging into the singular and surreal. The character designs of Coraline, her mother, and her father reminded me of Art Clokey’s soothing Davey and Goliath. Coraline’s problem – her work-at-home writer parents are too busy at their jobs to give her all the attention she needs – is one that a lot of kids can identify with.
So one day Coraline follows a white mouse (her White Rabbit) through the wall of her Psycho-like house to Other World. There she meets “Other Mother,” a more attentive version of her real mother (both voiced by Teri Hatcher), who has created this world and populated it with looking glass versions of Coraline’s father (“Other Father,” with Coraline, above) and neighbors, all of whom seem at first to be much-improved versions of their real-world counterparts. Best of all, everyone in Other World seems to have no purpose other than to entertain and cater to Coraline. Only a stray cat (Keith David) who has the ability to travel between worlds is there to warn Coraline that things in Other World may not be as wonderful as they first appear.
The devolution of Other World from something bright and wondrous into something dark and scary is paralleled by the changes in Other Mother herself. At first, the only physical difference between Coraline’s real-world mother and Other Mother is the buttons she has sewn on for eyes (above). As the story progresses, and Other World turns out to be a trap for children as dangerous as the Gingerbread House (or Pleasure Island in Pinocchio), the appearance of Other Mother becomes increasingly spider-like and monstrous (below). Why is Other Mother so interested in Coraline? As the cat says, “She wants something to love. Something that isn’t her. She might want something to eat as well.”
The film is so rich in archetypal imagery and situations that it’s open to a multitude of interpretations. The first and most obvious is the one highlighted in advertisements for the film, “Be careful what you wish for.” Another is, “Don’t always trust appearances. When something seems too good to be true, it probably is.” Like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, Coraline learns that her real-life caregivers aren’t as bad as she thought they were.
Other World seems so much more colorful and fun than the real world to begin with, but it eventually turns creepy, dark, and life-threatening. Here, one might see a parallel to certain drugs, and in Coraline a not-so-subliminal warning re the dangers of substance abuse.
But, deeper than that, Coraline points to the danger of retreating completely from a shared reality (koinos kosmos) into a private reality (idios kosmos). It’s the same subject as Ingmar Bergman’s Hour of the Wolf, in which an artist (Max von Sydow) is tempted by his personal demons to retreat from the real world into a horrific alternate reality. His primary temptation, typically for stories of this type, is a doppleganger of someone who abandoned him in the real world, a mistress (Ingrid Thulin) who the film suggests committed suicide. Kenji Mizoguchi’s Ugetsu is yet another variation on this theme (artist tempted into alt-reality by ghost princess).
Fortunately – especially for the children in the audience – Coraline has a happy ending that is appropriate, moving, and earned. If the imaginative Mr. Selick never makes another film in his life, his reputation as a master is secured.