An Artist’s Review of Coraline
*** Mild Spoilers Ahead ***
At the beginning of Coraline, one is presented with a lonely heroine grabbing a divining rod and wistfully following its lead. Instantly, I was brought back to when I was kid where I could be free to follow my imagination wherever it took me. It was a nice first step down the rabbit hole.
Based on the children’s book by Neil Gaiman (of The Sandman fame), the film is a marvelous display of imagery courtesy of the stop-motion genius of Henry Selick who also directed Nightmare Before Christmas.
Coraline is an isolated little girl living in a new environment with busy parents who seem to pay her little concern. An annoying neighbor boy named Whyborn (constructed especially for the screenplay), two bizarre has-been burlesque actress spinsters, a bizarre Russian gymnast, and a trickster black cat voiced by Keith David (the voice of Spawn and Goliath in the TV show Gargoyles) are her only companions.
Coraline finds a door in the wall to another reality in which her parents are attentive and loving, but in which everyone has horrific buttons sewn over their eyes. The alternate reality first is presented as the ultimate escape for an unhappy girl, but as the dream reality and the real world begin to blur, it quickly descends into something much more sinister.
Comparisons to Alice and Wonderland abound, but the movie visually breaks new ground that reinforces tried and true themes in novel ways. I have always found myself partial to these types of magical realities.
I really don’t want to give away more than that except to implore you to support this film and the artists who made it. The garden scene in particular will blow your mind with vivid colors and an amazing praying mantis tractor.
The “other mother” is also one of the best character designs I have seen for an evil witch in a while. She is certainly up there with some of the most menacing witches in film bettering some of my favorites like the Grand High Witch from Ronald Dahl’s Witches, the witch mother of the Sheriff of Nottingham in the Prince of Thieves, the Wicked Witch from the Wizard of Oz or any of the Disney witches including those from Snow White and Sleeping Beauty.
As an artist, I am simply blown away by the surrealistic vision that was put on screen and this marvelous presentation of the dream reality. Unlike the sleek and smooth perfection of the CG realm, I could see and feel the textures of Coraline. Even the slight imperfections conveyed an eerie feeling that stayed with me throughout the movie.
My artist’s instincts believe in imperfection as a basis of conveying a reality even in a completely fantastic form. Whenever, I watch a CG film I can’t help but feel that I am being lied to. There is no doubt that Selick has achieved a new state of the art in stop-motion animation managing its weaknesses and exploiting its artistic advantages to great effect.
Watching Coraline, I just couldn’t stop thinking about the state of film animation in general. The CG Pixar films, Kung Fu Panda, Shrek, ect. have their place and I enjoy many of them, but frankly a lot of what we have been getting lately has not been all that great. It is like the difference between a digital painting and oil painting. In Coraline, I could feel the brush strokes and it didn’t feel like a lie. It was a little reality constructed painstakingly by hand.
Coraline certainly pushes the limits of what a child can handle, but I noticed a lot of children in the movie theater. In fact, I think a child exiting the theater summed up the film best. Her mother asked her how she liked the film to which she responded, “It freaked my head out.” I found this a most appropriate response to a movie that contained both a child’s greatest fears and wondrous dreams. It freaked my head out too and I loved it!
As a little bonus, check out the HBO First Look featuring Coraline and just try not to jump out of your chair to see the movie if you haven’t already: