Nightmares aren’t the worst thing that can happen to your child. There was a time where children’s entertainment wasn’t scared to scare your children as well as delight the little ankle-biters. Of course, by now, the edges have been sanded off everything, anything pointy has been been made round and bouncy at the advice of hundreds of thousands of people with phD and M.D. affixed to their surnames, advice followed by large amounts of people who seem to be raising a country of unimaginative blob children who mumble and bump into each other like autistic weebles. Such an future seems scarier to me than the threat of a few nightmares
That’s not to say Henry Selick’s adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s Coraline is a nightmare machine. It’s a solid piece of children’s filmmaking that isn’t afraid to have teeth, and to use them when the tale being told necessitates some biting. It’s also one of the most beautiful, and beautifully crafted movies I’ve seen in a long time, a beauty perfectly augmented by an unobtrusive, naturalistic use of 3D. Not to say there aren’t a few little “I’M POKING SOMETHING SHARP AT YOU” moments leaping off the screen, but those moments are not only few and far between, they’re usually cute, little, perfectly timed surprises.
Coraline is the energetic, blue haired, and precocious (and of course she is, Dakota Fanning is voicing her) daughter of two writers. They write about plants. They are drab, unexciting people. They have moved into a slowly mouldering apartment outside of Ashland, Oregon, a drab rainy town populated by people whose high point of the year is a Shakespeare Festival. So of course, there is a magical wonderland behind a tiny door located in Coraline’s apartment.
And in that wonderland, mirror universe versions of her parents cook her fabulous dinners, complete with chandeliers that dispense mango milkshakes. They plant dancing gardens while riding mechanical Preying Mantis tractors. Their smiles are wide and happy, and their eyes are replaced with shiny black buttons. This creepy detail is the first hint that things are not what they seem to be in this magical otherworld, and Coraline is off on a sometimes exhilarating, sometimes funny, sometimes frightening adventure involving old mangy cats with Keith David’s voice, kidnapping, soul stealing, Van Gogh’s Starry Night coming to life, and old, top-heavy Burlesque Dancers performing for a theater full of Yorkies.
It’s a delicate balance between cute and creepy, a balance that Selick pulls off to well practiced effect by now. But where he drew from Tim Burton’s imagination for Nightmare Before Christmas, and Neil Gaiman’s for this movie, the atmosphere he creates in Coraline feels most like Hayao Miyazaki’s. This movie feels like a Totoro got lost in the underground caverns of Pan’s Labyrinth. It’s a vibrant waking dreamscape constantly skipping that line between rich and too rich, like a kid between bites of Devil’s Food, wondering how something like “too much cake” could possibly exist, much less be bad for you.
It’s not a flawless film, however. I’m not familiar with Gaiman’s text, so I don’t know if the book’s first quarter is as clunky and forced as the first 20 minutes of this movie is. Characterizations are rough and Coraline is more annoying than endearing until a dancing, trumpet playing mouse leads her on a trip into her otherworld. The movie feels like its pedaling uphill, and it slips more than a few gears in the beginning, but once the magic starts taking prominence in the story, everything locks into place and the imagination literally blooms from every angle into the screen.
And this is where we start to take tentative steps into nightmare territory. This is a movie kids are going to want to see. This is also a movie that parents are going to be nervous about showing to their kids. It’s very much a cinematic little sister (in age, not quality) to Gil Kenan’s Monster House. Like I said, this movie has teeth, and it bites with them. Cute little mousies will die in this film. Freaky bug creatures will threaten the life of little Coraline and her wild-haired stalker boyfriend Wybie. Oh yeah, Coraline has an awkward, wild-haired stalker boyfriend named Wybie. At some point Wybie’s going to have not nice things happen to his mouth.
But I remember when I was a kid, I appreciated a good scare or two. I liked the idea that there were freaky nasty things out there that wanted to eat me up, or in Coraline’s case, wanted to sew buttons into my eyeballs and eat my soul. I liked movies that had kids facing those things, and then fighting them, and winning. Selick knows his way around an action scene, and knows how to pace them. He builds some legitimate, earned tension in the last 15 minutes of this film, and it might be a little intense for anyone under 7, but the kids over 7? I remember leaving Monster House and thinking “I bet there’s gonna be a rash of little kids in the burbs, armed with wooden sticks and backpacks, hunting houses, rolling ass-over-teakettle across neighborhood yards in a clumsy imitation of army men, having a blast scaring each other and pretending to fight ghosts.”
I imagine there’s gonna be a lot of really cool little girls leaving Coraline going home, petting their kitty, putting it in a knapsack along with a couple of their favorite books (maybe even some of Gaiman’s) and setting out into their backyard, or their playground, and following little mice towards imaginary doorways where cannons fire cotton candy and big, shiny black buttons can be cute and dangerous all at the same time. It’d be a shame if parents praying to the altar of the rounded-edge denied their kids the chance to give that imagination a nice, swift kick with this movie.