CORALINE dazzles on many scores, not the least of which is that it unstintingly respects the intelligence of its audience, adult and child. Based on the novel by Neil Gaiman, its been adapted for the screen as 3-D stop-motion animation and directed by Henry Selick, who also directed THE NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS.
In this modern classic of a fairy tale, the title character, 12-years-old, blue-haired, and newly moved from Michigan to Oregon with parents who are less than perfect, discovers the hard lesson that when something seems too good to be true, it probably is. She learns this by way of an odd doorway in her new home. Not that its surprising to find oddities in The Pink Palace, a rickety gingerbread heap of an apartment building with Mr Bobinski, a mad Russian with large stomach and spindly legs, who putatively keeps mice in the attic, and an equally mad pair of elderly, overgroomed thespians, Miss Spink and Miss Forcible, who keep Scots Terriers in the basement. Even after they have ceased to breathe.
Coraline is a precocious child, clever, and as a result, too easily bored by being stuck inside on a rainy afternoon. Her father, desperate to finish working on his garden catalogue, tasks her with making a list of everything in the house. Thats when she notices the door, a tiny thing wallpapered over and locked. Her mother, in order to get on with her work on the same garden catalogue, finds the key, opens the door, and fails to share Coralines disappointment that it hides nothing more than a wall of bricks. But thats only during the day.
That night, she follows a peculiar jumping mouse through the door, down a glowing tunnel, and into a house very much like her own, only tidier, with better furniture, and an Other Mother. One who cooks and fusses over her. One that loves gardening as much as Coraline does, unlike the real mother on the other side of the door, writer of garden catalogues though she is. That the Other Mother has black buttons instead of eyes on her face is only slightly disconcerting in face of the roast chicken, the welcome cake, and the stupendous garden that her Other Father, also sporting black button eyes, has created just for her.
Coralines parents dont believe in the other world, of course, they think its just a dream, but Coraline is convinced of its reality, as are Mr. Bobinskis putative mice, who warn her off, and the neighborhood cat. A cat who shows up in that other world, without buttons for eyes, but with the ability to speak, an ability he shugs off by telling Coraline he just can rather than trying to analyze how or why it is that he can. By not explaining everything, just accepting it as a fact, the tale is just a bit more magical.
The supernatural intrudes little by little, gathering momentum and force and darkness as goes. Coralines first adventure before discovering the other place involves a home-made dousing rod, that neighborhood cat that seems to be more cerebral that felines are credited with being, and a run-in with Wybie, the landlords nerdy grandson who gives Coraline the rag doll he found that looks just like her. Its the same little by little as Coraline falls under the spell of the other world beyond the little door, as she becomes more and more trapped by it. The creeping nature of the capture only makes it more chilling, as does the idea that anything as appealing as mango milkshakes and a plate stacked high with cupcakes can be masking something nefarious. Still there are clues, odd sayings, such as someone being hungry as a pumpkin. Then theres the tapping. Its the way the Other Mother taps her fingernails on the table, soon to be echoed by the tapping of those same fingernails on her button eyes. The click may be faint, but that doesnt mitigate the harshness of the sound that echoes the harshness that the other worlds perfection masks. Not unlike the soft, melodious voice that the Other Mother uses to explain to Coraline that in order to stay with her in the perfect world, she will need to sew buttons into Coralines eyes.
Selick and his crack team of animators have preserved the essential non-reality of stop-motion movement while infusing each character, even the scenery, with a wealth of emotions. It creates a universe in which it is reasonable for anything to be possible. It also creates the emotional resonance necessary to propel the story. From the knowing way the cat just barely tilts its head in a nod, to a stone wall that springs to life, to the evolution of Coralines relationship with Wybie, its the subtlety that makes the overt surreality work on such a visceral level. Paired with an evocative score that is at once longing, eerie, and suffused with both innocence and dread, it is as much a character in the film as any of the animate creatures.
Pay close attention to how CORALINE begins, the hands composed of sewing needles that refurbish a rag doll into the one that Wybie will give Coraline. Those hands will return and with a vengeance, also bringing the film full circle in a masterful fashion. Also stay through the credits, long though they are, through which the Scots Terriers, in their real and other world incarnations frolic. At the end, there is a 3-D effect that is pure ethereal artistry. Its a fitting end to a film that is as near perfect as cinema can be.