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Wayback Wednesday: Coraline (2009)

Oh, there’s a creepy mansion, an evil spirit, and a spunky protagonist? I’m in.

Ask anyone who’s seen Coraline (2009) and I guarantee you that they’ll say they were freaked out by this movie the first time they saw it. There are plenty of children’s movies out there that have terrifying moments – don’t even talk to me about the trauma Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988) inflicted on me – but to my knowledge, few that advertise themselves as straight-up horror movies. Coraline is a beautifully animated children’s movie filled with magic and mystery, but make no mistake: The frights and chills that this movie conjures are what stick with audiences most. And that’s just one of the reasons why I adore this movie! I’ve always loved children’s movies with spooky, creepy, sinister vibes. For a lot of us who’ve grown up to have an affinity for horror and the macabre, it’s movies like this where the interest began. Of course for me, it was any Scooby-Doo movie I could get my hand on. Seriously, I can’t stress enough how instrumental Scooby and the Gang have been in shaping who I am as a person.

Credit: / Focus Features

Based on Neil Gaiman’s novel of the same name, Coraline tells the story of the titular character, an adventurous 11-year-old-girl who discovers a door to another world in the home she and her parents have just moved into. Filled with wonders beyond her wildest dreams, Coraline is tempted to leave her boring life behind and live in the other world forever. But when she learns of the evil force responsible for making her heart’s desires a reality, Coraline learns that not everything is as it seems.

I’m a big fan of Gaiman’s work. From “Stardust,” to “The Graveyard Book,” to having a hand in re-writing Poison Ivy’s now iconic origin story, I love the fantastical and twisted worlds and characters he’s capable of creating. Coraline is no exception. The book is marvellously creepy and writer / director Henry Selick does a wonderful job of ensuring the movie adaptation carries the same tone. From the very beginning as a haunting score plays over the opening credits, you know you’re in for something sinister. Oh! And then the creepiest of all objects, a doll, starts to be assembled by a rusty pair of living sewing needles. Ugh, if that opening doesn’t send a shiver down your spine, nothing will. Selick perfectly transitions Gaiman’s work from page to screen, creating a movie that like most of Gaiman’s work, feels like a dark fairy tale or a timeless ghost story. I can’t think of a better style of filmmaking for such a harrowing story than stop-motion.

Having already helmed The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993) and James and the Giant Peach (1996), Selick is no stranger to directing spooky stop-motion classics. In fact, speaking of Tim Burton, the world of Coraline has a real Beetlejuice (1988) vibe to it. I will never cease to be in awe of the amount of work that goes into creating a stop-motion animated movie. They’re astounding. The dedication, craftsmanship, artistry and patience that go into these movies is jaw-dropping. There’s something about the craft that feels so compatible with horror stories, and the bold animation style really helps draw you into the web of terror and enchantment that Coraline weaves.

The artistry in this movie is spectacular. Filled with vibrant colours, stunning sets, and deliciously wicked character designs, Coraline is a true work of art. I swear, I could FEEL the textures of the character’s clothing through the screen. The amazing artistry helps tell the story almost as much as the writing or the characters do. Visually, you have no trouble getting an understanding of how dull and disappointing Coraline’s life is. As well, falling under the intoxicating spell of the other world is made all the easier when you see how magnificently the sets and characters are designed. It looks and feels like a dream come true. However, when you’re dealing with the Other Mother, “nightmare” is a much more appropriate term.

In the dual role of Coraline’s mother and the villainous Other Mother, Teri Hatcher is quite remarkable. Playing two – three, if you count the Other Mother’s ruse of being a sweet mother – starkly different roles is certainly a challenge but it’s one that Hatcher accomplishes with the utmost success. I totally believe her as the overworked, frustrated mother, the angelic, dream mom, and the demonic, monstrous Other Mother. Again though, it can’t be said enough how much the bone-chilling and imaginative character design helps differentiate between the euphoria and the terror that Coraline is capable of conveying.

You know what I can say about Dakota Fanning? She’s dependable as Hell. In everything I’ve seen her in, from her years spent starring in children’s movies to her more mature roles, I’m always pleasantly entertained by Fanning. As Coraline, she once again delivers. She gives such life, defiance, and moxie to the character, making her an intriguing and plucky protagonist that you desperately want to succeed. Fanning leads Coraline with passion and gusto, ensuring that her protagonist is a beacon of hope and light in a movie where despair and darkness always seem to be on the verge of victory. As much as I’m rooting for Coraline to succeed, I can’t deny how wickedly fun all that despair and darkness is to watch. All the monsters, villains, and ghosts in Coraline are wildly entertaining. Speaking of entertaining, shoutout to Ian McShane, Dawn French, and Jennifer Saunders as Coraline’s eccentric neighbours. Each one is a hoot, and delivers memorably delightful performances that give the movie a welcome sense of comedic relief. I mean, DUH. If you hire French and Saunders, memorably delightful is an understatement of what you’ll get.

Coraline manages to wrap 90 minutes of adventure, mystery, and horror up in a tidy little bow, one that audiences of any age can enjoy. It’s an irresistibly dark delight that will leave you mystified. Smart and interesting, it would be great if more children’s movies aspired to this level of entertainment rather than relying on fart jokes and dated pop culture references. Look, I’m certainly all for a well-placed fart joke every once in a while. But given the choice between an hour and a half of mindless mediocrity versus an hour and a half of bewitching brilliance, I think we all know I’d choose the latter in a heartbeat. What can I say? I’m a spooky kid at heart and will always, always, always, choose the spookiest option. Always. 

Are you a fan of Coraline

Let me know in the comments or on social media!

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