fell down the rabbit hole she landed in a topsy-turvy world where
familiar sights were skewed out of shape, comforting characters became
slightly alarming, and Victorian platitudes were gently mocked.
Neil Gaiman, a popular author of modern fantasy,
goes further than Lewis Carroll in his book “Coraline,” which won the
2003 Hugo Award for best novella, the 2003 Nebula Award ditto, and the
2002 Bram Stoker Award for best work for young readers.
Now Henry Selick, whose work you know from “The
Nightmare Before Christmas” and “James and the Giant Peach,” has turned
“Coraline” into a funny and elegant and scary animated feature that
should become an instant classic.
We should note that the “scary” part really is: this
is not the Disney “Alice” of your grandparents' day. There are images
and concepts here that could frighten little kids, but in a much
healthier way than the slasher flicks I see thoughtless people taking
four-year-olds to these days.
Coraline is a bright and funny 11-year-old whose
parents are too busy to pay any attention to her, and we all know what
happens when such kids are left to their own devices. They've just
moved into a spooky old Victorian mansion that's been cut up into
spooky Victorian flats in an Oregon town that's obviously Ashland,
because there's a Shakespeare festival, and the local kids yell lines
from “Richard III” in their street games.
It rains a lot, being Oregon, but Coraline just puts
on her slicker and boots and Greek fisherman's cap and takes it in
stride. That's how she meets Wybie, a local loner kid, and his really
scrawny cat. (These are characters that Selick invented, he said, so
Caroline wouldn't have to spend the whole movie talking out loud to
Very much like Alice, Coraline discovers a small
door behind the living-room wallpaper, which appears to be blocked by a
brick wall until a strange jumping mouse leads her back to it after
bedtime, when she finds that it opens onto a pulsating, glowing tunnel.
Being our heroine she immediately crawls through it and finds herself
in an exact replica of her own world, except her doppelganger parents
are attentive and amusing, and just love her to pieces. The only
disturbing note is that all the creatures in the Other world, including
the Other Mother and the Other Father, have buttons sewn over the
sockets where their eyes should be. They tell Caroline that she can
live there forever and have fun if she'll just let them sew buttons
over HER eyes, and welcome to the troubling world of Neil Gaiman.
Coraline's adventures in the Other world become more and more bizarre
as she figures out the Other Mother's twisted motivation, and watches
in horror as the surrogate parent becomes more and more spiderish.
But Caroline is heir to a long line of smart and
self-possessed kid heroes and heroines, and even as she's drawn deeper
into the story's terrifying vortex, her resolve and her courage grow to
deal with it (along with help from Wybie, and his cat, and some very
As you know if you've seen the previous movies,
Selick works in stop-motion animation, which has come a very, very long
way since the days of Gumby and Pokey. All the old jerkiness is gone,
and the backgrounds and their colors, sometimes painted and sometimes
computer-generated, go from alarmingly somber to breathtakingly
beautiful. In one stunning moment, when the arachnid Other-Mom
dissolves the dream around Coraline the pixels rain out of the frame,
leaving her lost in a stark white, featureless world. In another moment
that's just as stunning, the ceiling of Coraline's bedroom becomes a
swirling version of the sky in Van Gogh's Starry Night that's almost
too bright to look at.
The movie's rhythms could use a little more
variation, but it's refreshing that Selick doesn't hurl the jokes
and the scares at us frantically, the way a lot of kids' movies do, but
lets us discover the wonderful sights, and ideas, at a more thoughtful