Coraline ushered in a new wave of kids-style spooks in 2009, with Henry Selick taking over writing and directing privileges while adapting Neil Gaiman’s story. Many should know Selick from his direction of a similar film, 1993’s The Nightmare Before Christmas; while that animated classic specifically focused on Halloween, Coraline foregoes holiday celebrations and instead presents a magical Utopian world for its title character, one that offers her the perfect family she never had but also the consequence that she join their button-eyed society. Let’s take a look at what makes Coraline a classic, and whether Selick is able to recreate The Nightmare Before Christmas‘ lovable Halloween festivities.
What makes it a classic?
There’s definitely an alluring quality to Coraline, whether you’re a youngster, medium-aged like myself, or an oldster; the color presentation in the film is amazing, and the stop-motion animation – along with its 3D imagery if you’ve got the ability to recreate it at home – makes the world come to life. And that’s really the point of Coraline, isn’t it? To make Coraline’s (Dakota Fanning) world drab and dreary in reality but fantastical and enchanting in the button world she’s transported into when she makes her way through the house’s hidden-door tunnel.
Selick’s script does a great job of making both worlds scary, though. Coraline’s real family are too emotionally detached, opting to focus on their jobs more than Coraline’s need for attention. Teri Hatcher and John Hodgman do a great job as the voice of Coraline’s parents, juggling two very different moods: aloof and bored in reality, lively and excitable in the Other World, they provide a necessary contrast that helps cement Coraline‘s main theme.
This is a story that’s great for kids because of its creativity and color scheme, but it’s also heavily thematic for adults. Coraline presents the boundary between childhood naivete and adult ennui, with Coraline on the cusp of both. Unhappy with her parents’ busy schedules, she wishes for something more than the monotony of daily life, and eventually she gets it with the Other World. It’s a place where everything is perfect, extraordinary even; people seem to have no cares or regrets, and the possibilities are only as limited as the person’s imagination.
But Coraline drops a scary bombshell – nothing is perfect, nor should one expect it to be. There’s always a catch, and ultimately Selick uses button eyes as a symbol for conformity; the Other Mother Beldam (also Hatcher) morphs into a spindly spidery stick of a woman, hoping to steal Coraline’s real eyes and replace them with buttons in order to keep her in the Other World. Coraline, throughout the feature, is a self-confident and bright-eyed person, and the Other World is a way of eliminating that cheer.
Coraline is populated with a wondrous cast of characters, too, and eventually it becomes apparent to Coraline and the audience that the real world has its own charms. It also has its issues, ones that can eventually be overcome given enough patience. Coraline’s parents don’t dislike her or even intentionally ignore her; they’re just stressed out about life and their work, and Coraline shows us that while life often gets in the way of important things, it doesn’t have to completely block out personal lives.
So besides the animation and the often eerie imagery throughout the film, Coraline becomes a classic simply because of its snapshot of a child’s life, dealing with the encroachment of adult problems and the realization that one can and should settle for something less than perfect. It also reinforces the importance of never losing the spark in your eye that makes you… well… you.
Is it good for Halloween?
That depends on the viewer. If you’re looking for another Nightmare Before Christmas, then you’re going to be disappointed. But Coraline offers enough enchanting visuals – often draped in spooky, somewhat Gothic and ethereal decor – to grab the attention of viewers watching in their living room full of orange and purple lights, ensconced in a jack-o-lantern’s glow. Still, there’s no reference to Halloween in the film, nor does the film’s setting seem to take place during the season. But black cats, mice, and gloomy house interiors help to add ambiance to the film, and it certainly can put the right person in the mood (not that mood).