Pity Henry Selick. He’s the man who can’t get out of Tim Burton’s shadow. It’s understandable in a way, since Selick’s fame is so inextricably tied to his status as the titular director of Tim Burton’s the Nightmare Before Christmas (1993), a work that owes far more to Burton’s imagination than to its director. That Burton also produced Selick’s James and the Giant Peach (1996) probably doesn’t help matters, and the fact that almost no one saw Selick’s only other feature, Monkeybone (2001), leaves him best known—or rather unknown—as the director of a film that includes the name of a much more famous filmmaker in its title.
Nonetheless, I’m not sure that any of this excuses the banner atop the Chicago Tribune announcing “Tim Burton’s Coraline,” or the poll on the IMDb where you can vote as to whether or not Coraline is Tim Burton’s best film yet, or the people who come out of Coraline thinking they’ve seen a Tim Burton picture. Here at last Henry Selick has made a fine film of his own and he still can’t get the credit. Let’s put it to rest: Coraline is not a Tim Burton film. It is a Henry Selick film adapted by Selick from a book by Neil Gaiman—and a fascinating film it is, especially in 3-D.
Despite the fact that Coraline looks a bit like a Burton picture, it really bears little relation to Burton—or even to Burton’s sense of the macabre. Burton’s work—dark-tinged as it often is—is essentially playful. The grotesqueries in his fantasies like Nightmare Before Christmas and Corpse Bride (2005) are not to be taken seriously; they are meant to be fun. The world of Selick’s Coraline is a much darker place. What Selick has made is a horror movie for children.
That’s neither a bad thing, nor is it as strange as a lot of people seem to find it. After all, who do you think made up the biggest audience for all those old horror pictures on TV’s Shock Theater programs? Why were so many of the Hammer horror movies of the 1960s shown as Saturday matinees? And really, before they were sanitized by antsy parent groups, nearly all fairy tales were horrific in nature. Take, for example, “Hansel and Gretel,” a story about a witch who traps children in order to eat them, and is defeated by being knocked into an oven and burned alive. Yes, it’s also a cautionary tale, but then so is Coraline.
The theme of Coraline—be careful what you wish for, because you just might get it—is an old one. It’s expressed here in the form of a little girl, Coraline (Dakota Fanning), with a set of preoccupied parents, whose negligent attitude makes her long for better parents. Coraline seems to find what she has been yearning for on the other side of a sealed door, behind which lies a tunnel (the design of which Dr. Freud would have something to say about) that leads to an alternate world and a seemingly better life, complete with doting mirror-image parents. That all the inhabitants—including the parents—have buttons for eyes is the first clue that things are not as rosy as they may appear. And, of course, it all turns out to be a snare and a dangerous illusion.
There’s really nothing surprising about the story itself, though it is very cleverly worked out and shrewdly developed. (A second look at the film—and it’s worth one—starts to reveal just how shrewd the development really is. The foreshadowing and the subtle use of facial expressions are both truly remarkable.) What makes the film unusual lies in just how dark and creepy the whole thing is. Though rated PG—and rightly so, because there’s nothing actually censorable about the film—Coraline is a singularly unsettling, even disturbing film. There’s much that is visually stunning, but much of the undeniable beauty is undercut by a sense of something not being “right.” And the few moments in the film that could qualify as cute are just waiting to expose their darkly sinister side. There aren’t many hard R horror films that are this effective.
What keeps the film from actual greatness is a lack of emotional resonance. For all its well-defined atmosphere and menace, Coraline suffers from an almost complete lack of sympathetic characters. Coraline herself isn’t even likable. She’s brusque and rude, no better than her real parents. Even such potentially sympathetic characters—like her surrogate father and the hunchbacked Wyborn (Robert Bailey Jr., The Happening)—are undermined by their sheer creepiness. The same is true of the old music-hall performers (Jennifer Saunders and Dawn French) who live downstairs and the mouse-training circus performer (Ian McShane) who lives upstairs, despite the fact that they all have some hand in defeating the evil that pervades the old house they inhabit.
All of this should be borne in mind when deciding for whom the film is appropriate. I have no trouble or hesitation in recommending it to horror-movie fans of any age. I do not, however, think Coraline is suitable for smaller children, who could easily find it to be the stuff of nightmares. It is a remarkable work, but it’s not without its flaws, nor without its potential perils for younger viewers. Rated PG for thematic elements, scary images, some language and suggestive humor.