A comfortably creepy yet modernized Grimm fairy tale in the time-honored tradition of “be careful what you wish for.”
Meet Coraline (Dakota Fanning), a clever little girl who longs to spend more time with her family. Both Mother (Teri Hatcher) and Father (John Hodgman) are busy putting together a gardening book, you see, leaving poor Coraline with the likes of the neighbor’s kid named Wybie (Robert Bailey Jr.) to keep her entertained. Doomed to lurk around her home alone counting windows to pass the time, Coraline discovers a small door that has been covered over with wallpaper. While during the day there are only bricks behind it, the door opens at night into a wonderful land where every wish comes true…
This style of stop-motion animation is already familiar to fans of The Nightmare Before Christmas, James and the Giant Peach, and The Corpse Bride. It’s a time consuming process, to be sure, but the effect, combined with modern-day enhancements, is nothing short of surreal, perfect for creepy little tales like this one. The story never quite gets to scary but pleasantly builds in creepiness and atmosphere, like watching a colorful balloon happily inflating until you realize that it’s overfilling and about to burst at any moment. When that moment occurs in Coraline, the story wonderfully kicks into dark-and-twisted overdrive.
A curiosity of Coraline is the dating of the film. Rather than stick to a timelessness that might have been now, tomorrow, or yesterday, Mother and Father are specifically seen using flip-open cellphones and driving a modern Volkswagen Beetle (product placement?) Mother also uses a laptop for her writing while Father insists on using what could only be an antiquated green-screen Apple II. While not entirely out of place or jarring, it does feel strange to see these items in a fairy tale, lending to the effect of the real world being a place where no one personally connects anymore. If there’s a truly frightening part of this film, this technological isolation is certainly it.
Keeping things in the real and surreal worlds in check is a disheveled black cat, distinctly voiced by Keith David. He seems to show up right whenever Coraline is in a fix, providing a glimmer of hope even if he won’t answer a straight question. Coraline’s transition from self-centered child to responsible family member is a strong lesson, and seeing a family come together after enduring a busy period in their lives to make good on past promises is also a good one. Coraline is fairly dark for a family film, but with director Henry Selick at the helm working from a Neil Gaiman book, there’s something of interest happening on screen every moment.
(a three and a half skull recommendation out of four)