Young Henry Selick started drawing at the age of three; in awe of the creamy fluidity of Disney and agape at the skeletal menace of Harryhausen…
Grownup Henry took an apprenticeship at the Mouse-House, absorbing all the tricks of the ’toon trade before making his feature debut with 1993’s The Nightmare Before Christmas.
Coraline, based on Neil Gaiman’s children’s novel, pulls in two other key influences: the surrealist stop-motion of Czech nightmareweaver Jan Švankmajer and Japanese illustrator Tadahiro Uesugi.
“Tadahiro’s drawings are inspired by ’60s American advertising illustrations,” says Selick in the brisk but enlightening Making Of. “His colours are pure and simple but fully formed. He never creeps up on something interesting. He goes to the place immediately.”
With Coraline, Selick’s plan is clearly to get to The Place by immediately plunging us into the muted and mediocre world of a young girl dislocated by relocation and alienated by workaholic parents.
In the pale kitchen of their cavernous new home, Coraline’s mother grimly confirms the rules of disengagement: “Your dad cooks, I clean, you stay out of the way!” Squirming with loneliness, she dreams and schemes. She meets the neighbours – a haughty black cat, a gadget-obsessed young boy, a couple of old vaudeville stars played by French & Saunders…
Then, she uncovers a secret door into a parallel world featuring her ‘Other’ mother and father. Real mum and dad are drab and distant, but her Other-parents are swirling firecrackers of verve and invention – summoning deliciously artful banquets of food and drink, launching into raucous show-tunes…
All is vivid in this Other-life. Creaky, real-world realities are sleek and flowing: trees bloom, cats talk, food sparkles with colour and succulence. Slight hitch: everyone has buttons for eyes. And, as her Other-mother sweetly explains, Coraline will be expected to sew on her own if she wants to stay wrapped in this rare new fabric.
Visually, Selick has transformed Gaiman’s book into an angular pantomime of heartstopping stopmotion. The insane attention to detail is reflected in the Making Of, with the model-makers explaining how each figure has to be carved and moulded with subtle armatures and micro-knitted clothing.
“Everything you see on screen is made by hand,” says Selick. “We didn’t go to the prop shop. Everything had to be made from scratch: from the floors Coraline walks on, to the walls in the background, to the skies above.” With the stop-start method requiring an army of animators, it’s tempting to wonder – why no CGI? The answer is all up on screen, in the end achieved by this maniacal means. Every frame feels sumptuous and alive and real: Coraline’s ultrabright, none-more-blue nail varnish, swaying patches of iridescent lantern flowers, squelching condensation scribbles – a direct steal from Švankmajer.
Selick meshes organic eloquence with an engineer’s attention to detail. Everything looks like it works (Pixar’s late Joe Ranft sharply tagged Selick’s style as “rock’n’roll meets Da Vinci”).
Selick is a master of coaxing light from the shadows and trickling darkness into the seemingly innocent. He takes a few liberties with the original story (gadget-obsessed boy buddy Wybie is a Hollywood conceit) but hits Gaiman’s main beats (isolation, imagination, the embracing/suffocating arms of the adult realm). Gaiman is refreshingly understanding about the process. “If you filmed it faithfully you’d have a 47-minute movie,” smiles the writer. “All Henry has done is add detail.”
In the first half, as Coraline explores and discovers the wonders of the Other-world, Selick’s interpretation is a little restrained and directionless. The exquisite technical wonders coat the eyeballs while the storytelling is too aloof to stain the soul. Anyone under 12 will be kept busy gurning into the (mostly successful) 3D and quaking at the leering, button-eyed Othermother who turns nasty when Coraline refuses to stitch herself up.
The film only resonates for adults in the second half as Selick loosens up, weaving in stiffer psychology, starker horror and a scattering of sly classical riffs (Alice In Wonderland, Hamlet, a Medusa moment). The split inevitably leads to a schizo feel – a film that’s too scary for kids and too kooky and meandering for adults.
Coraline is lavishly crafted and always engaging, but – maybe because, as Gaiman hints, it’s not a feature-length idea in the first place – it never quite sizes up to the grand Gothic mischief of Nightmare, or the snowballing strangeness of Selick’s other literary adap, James And The Giant Peach.
Apparently, Selick’s next gig is an animated take on Alan Snow’s crazed Here Be Monsters! – another story about a lost child cut off from reality. It’s time for him to evolve and carve out his masterpiece: a film that’s not quite so in love with the way it was made; something that transcends technique and cuts straight through to The Place.
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