Epic Movie (Re)Watch #144 - Coraline
Have I seen it before: Yes
Did I like it then: Yes.
Do I remember it: Yes.
Did I see it in theaters: No.
1) Director Henry Selick is probably best known for his work as director on The Nightmare Before Christmas, but I personally think (and this may be considered blasphemy) that Coraline is his magnum opus. More on that coming up.
2) In both horror and animation, a well done score can boost the tone of the film remarkably. And composer Bruno Coulais is able to turn in a score notable for its subtlety and tone boosting. It is able to be ominous, child like, fantastical, and creepy all at the same time. That is actually a perfect way of describing this film.
3) Animation fans with eagle eyes will notice that the movers in the beginning in the film are the “Ranft Brothers”. Joe Ranft was a legendary animator, known mostly for his work at Pixar until his tragic death. His brother is a noteworthy animator too, Jerome Ranft. The movers are animated in the likenesses of the brothers (you even get a glance at a name tag reading “Jerome”), with Joe being the mover who gets the crummy tip and Jerome Ranft voicing his counterpart.
4) Dakota Fanning as Coraline Jones.
Coraline is not your typical animated heroine, which is exactly why she is such an amazing character. She’s a bit of a snot actually. She’s bratty, shown to be mean, overdramatic, sarcastic, winey, and it is all amazing! Because she’s not ONLY those things! She’s also fun, intelligent, clever, imaginative and adventurous. For most of the film she is at odds with her parents but she risks her film for them because, well, they’re her parents! The best way to describe Coraline is as a kid. An honest portrayal of a kid! Not totally one thing or another and not nearly as oblivious as some people may expect. Dakota Fanning (who was attached to the role when the film was meant to be live action even) is perfect in the part, able to portray all of Coraline’s qualities with wonderful ease while totally losing herself in the role. Coraline is the title character which means we - as the audience - NEED to be invested in her for this film to be any good. And the filmmakers did an excellent job making sure we were just that: invested.
Coraline [after seeing The Cat]: “Not talking, huh?”
6) This film is a little more adult than your typical animated fare, something which is established pretty early when Coraline refers to Wybie as her stalker. It is a decision in tone and content which works wonderfully for the film.
We don’t get to see much of Wybie in the film. Well, that’s not entirely true. We don’t get to see much of Wybie compared to CORALINE, who is the lead and is therefore in every scene except for the one that plays during the opening credits. But in the time we see him it is very clear that this is the neighborhood weird kid. And it’s done accurately too! He’s not the butt of any joke, he’s not someone who’s supposed to be a creep or a plot device. Just like Coraline, he’s an honest representation of the kids out in the world who are sort of strange.
8) Dang, Coraline can be mean!
Coraline [after someone calls for Wyborne ‘Wybie’s’ name]: “Oh I definitely heard someone, Why Were You Born.”
Like, sure the dude is sorta weird, but he’s been pretty nice so far. But that’s part of Coraline’s character, and we see that side of her go on a bit of a transformation throughout the film.
9) Film is first and foremost a visual way of storytelling and animation can do that better than live action can if done right. Through animation you are able to portray the character of things (not just your characters but places and items) through design. Through your visuals. Take this film for example: the real world is marked by a more subdued color palette and look. Everything - including Coraline’s parents - look grey, tired, and worn down. Something which creates an immediate visual conflict through Coraline, who from the very start gives off these incredible vibrant and lively colors. It is a visual conflict which is reflective of a textual one that works wonders for the film.
10) It would have been easy to make Coraline a total brat and her parents good parents who try their hardest, but Mom and Dad aren’t perfect either. Mom particularly shows us where Coraline got her attitude, sarcasm, and occasional brattiness from (and I know “brat” has negative connotations to it but I love Coraline so when I call her a “brat” I’m doing so with love because that trait is something I think is a great writing decision for her character). It also gets to the idea that a friend of mine told me once: parents are just kids who have kids. Parents don’t know what they’re doing when they have kids, they’re making it up as they go along. Which means they’re not perfect. They can get tired and impatient and mean too, and showing that in this film continues its honesty streak. That honesty - in relationships in characters - is what helps make it so great.
11) I can’t IMAGINE what animating the tunnel sequence was like.
I mean stop motion animation is moving something a tiny bit, then taking a picture. And you repeat that process over and over again with puppets until you have a moving image like this one. So the tunnel on its own - with the lighting and the fabric - must have been a pain to animate. But then Coraline walking through it? And jostling it around, but the animators have to make sure that jostling is perfect in every frame? I do NOT have the patience for stop motion animation, I tell you. Or the fingers. I don’t have delicate fingers.
12) The Other World.
Going with the idea of visual conflict, there is immediately more of a peace between Coraline’s vibrant colors and the creative rainbow like Other World she finds herself in. This resolves most of the visual conflict ON THE SURFACE, but everywhere there are these black buttons. These little dark specs that just liter the world in hard to see places, things which can easily get lost in the magic of it all but are always there. Hiding in plain sight.
The Other World - both in its dream and nightmare phases - show off Selick’s wild imagination. The best animation directors have a penchant for imaginative visuals, using the medium to do things live action couldn’t (something I observed in my The Book of Life post back in November). Selick as not only animator but production designer on this film is able to create some wonderful and memorable images of dream like fantasy which makes the transition to nightmarish scenes in the back half of the film all the more powerful. It is truly wonderful.
13) According to IMDb:
The band They Might Be Giants wrote 10 songs for the movie, but a change in tone from a musical to a darker production meant that all but one was cut; a scene in which Coraline’s other father sings along with a piano features John Linnell’s voice. The band has said they will release the other songs created for the movie in other projects, including albums.
14) It is worth noting that the initial dinner Coraline has with her Other Parents is more of a Norman Rockwell, classic/idyllic image than her dinner at home (in both the food served and the look of the place). This relates to the film’s almost critique (I say almost because I do not know if it was intended, but it very well could have been) on expectations vs reality. How we have let certain fantasies shape our expectations in the real world and if we find something that fits those expectations perfectly it’s probably a lie.
15) Teri Hatcher shines in this film, particularly as Other Mother. There are three sort of phases to her performance as Other Mother which I will discuss individually as they occur. The first of these is the initial encounter with Other Mother. The sweet sing-song tones filled with love and warmth which can trick someone into thinking its honesty but when you listen there is DEFINITELY something false about it. A faux kindness which can catch you off guard. No one is really that kind, that nice. That’s the face you put on for company when it’s over and not one you can sustain forever.
16) Ian McShane as Mr. Bobinsky.
I observed in my recap for the Selick directed The Nightmare Before Christmas that the film was able to create unique characterizations within seconds of introducing us to said characters which lasted consistently throughout the rest of the film. In this film - especially with Coraline’s neighbors - the same holds true. We are able to get a sense of what kind of fun weirdo Mr. Bobinsky is within seconds of meeting him, someone who’s a bit of a nut but also a generally nice guy, and that lasts through the end of the film. Ian McShane does a wonderful job as Bobinsky and out of the three neighbors (Bobinksy and the two actresses), Bobinsky is my personal favorite.
It is also worth observing Bobinsky’s character design here. As I said before, animation tells you a lot through its visuals about a character. Small elements in Bobinsky’s design make him a bit more human than say your average Prince Charming or seven dwarfs. The ratty shirt, the unkempt body hair, the big gut. All of it gives Bobinsky not only a sense of character but a sense of realism, as life is not always as pretty as we expect. This plays DIRECTLY into Other Bobinsky’s appearances, notably how he is better dressed AND his torso is upside down. Instead of having a large stomach, he has a large chest suggesting strength. THAT is your fairytale version of Bobinsky right there and - like everything else in the Other World - it’s a lie.
17) Similarly, the two actress neighbors of Miriam Forcible and April Spink are established as weird but lovable dog ladies as soon as we meet them.
I mentioned before how this film plays with the ideas of expectations vs reality, and that becomes pretty clear after we meet Coraline’s neighbors. This is not some fairytale for Coraline. In a fairytale Mr. Bobinsky would run an incredible jumping mouse circus, not be a vaguely crazy man trying to create a jumping mouse circus (I say with love). And the pair of Miriam and April would be elegant world famous actresses, not two washed up has-beens (I say with love). But you know what? This is EXACTLY what they are in the Other World! The fairytale versions of themselves that is meant to be exactly what Coraline wants. And just like the change in design for Bobinsky in the Other World, Miriam and April get similar beautifications.
Now they’re as pretty as any fairytale princess with a waistline to match, because that’s the “better” version of this isn’t it? Except it’s not real. It’s a lie, meant to entrap you and keep you from having a good REAL life. I sort of love that about this film.
Coraline [after Other Mother asks her to get her father]: “You mean my other father?”
Other Mother: “You’re better father, dear.”
Red flag! Red flag! That’s a creepy thing to say Other Mother! (It is also here when we start noticing the fakeness of Other Mother’s nice voice.)
19) I keep mentioning how you can detect a slight hint of fakeness in Other Mother’s face. The hint is not so slight in Other Father’s voice. There’s nothing real there, nothing honest. Just fake honey that’s meant to entice Coraline. And I think that’s because Other Mother is the mastermind and she’s making Other Father BE like that. It’s a nice choice on the part of the filmmakers and actor John Hodgman I think.
Other Mother [about Other ‘Silent’ Wybie]: “I thought you’d like him more if he spoke a little less. So I fixed him.”
If anyone says they “fixed” a person, turn around and run like crazy away. That’s creepy.
21) Hmm, wonder which of her parents Coraline takes after…
Mom: “I did not call [Mr. Bobinsky] crazy, Coraline. He’s drunk.”
22) The. Freaking. CAT!!!!
Can I just say first and foremost: I love Keith David. Dr. Facilier from The Princess and the Frog is my favorite Disney villain of all time in no small part because of Keith David’s voice over work as the character. And his role as The Cat is just as good. I love The Cat, which is saying a lot because I’m a dog person. David is able to work with the writing and make the character both wise and mischievous but in a unique, dark, sarcastic way. He’s also the first hint of trouble and the only character other than Coraline to travel between worlds. The animators do an excellent job making sure The Cat’s characterization is clear and consistent, even when he can’t speak in the real world. He’s an excellent addition to the film and a wonderful companion to our hero.
23) Everything gets real freaky real fast.
Right after Other Mother asks to put buttons in Coraline’s eyes (or, more accurately, REPLACE her eyes with buttons) this film turns into a horror film. Full on Stephen King, Poltergeist, “Stranger Things” horror! (Not that I’ve seen or read any of those things because I scare too easily.) And it is born not from jump scares or gore but from tone. The atmosphere becomes notably chilly and ominous and everything just becomes so FREAKY. THAT is why I think this is Henry Selick’s magnum opus. Because he can be as scary as he want to be!
24) For me, one of the most powerful scenes in the movie is when Coraline walks around Other World.
The simple decision to have her walk through a white abyss then find herself back in the Other World the Other Mother created just really works for me. It’s a simple yet elegant concept.
25) Other Mother’s truer form (her true form comes later).
This is when Teri Hatcher and Other Mother start really shining as villains. There is still an attempt to be motherly, to be warm, but the creepy factor is turned up. There’s a sick playfulness there at times as well as terrifying anger. But this form is most marked by the cold reservedness. The chilling tones the Other Mother uses when taking to Coraline about the game they’re going to play. It’s crazy freaky and I love it for that!
26) There is no scene quite as haunting or quite as sad as when Coraline talks with the ghost kids.
Through its use of haunting visuals, eerie sound design, excellent writing, and top notch voice acting from the child actors, this one scene tells you perfectly what exactly the stakes are for this film. What exactly will happen to Coraline if she can’t succeed. And it’s terrifying.
27) I did not remember this line from before and the way Coraline describes the ghost kids to Wybie had me laughing my butt off.
Coraline [about the doll]: “It used to look like this pioneer girl, then Huck Finn Junior, then this ‘Little Rascals’ chick with hair ribbons…”
I don’t know why, but something about hearing her call the kid, “Huck Finn Junior,” is just wildly funny to me.
28) The entire idea of the eyes of the dead children being hidden in the “three wonders” Other Mother crafted for Coraline is not only an excellent way of juxtaposing some of the dream like imagery from earlier with its now nightmarish quality, but it also gives plot relevance to scenes which could have easily just been entertaining and excellent eye candy (Bobinsky’s circus, the garden, and the theater scene). It helps push the writing of this film from good to great.
29) So Coraline thinks she has lost her game with Other Mother and she’s going to end up like the ghost children, when a dead rat with the last eye falls in front of her and The Cat shows up.
The Cat: “I think I’ve mentioned that I don’t like rats at the best of times.”
Coraline: “You may have mentioned it.”
I love these guys.
30) Can we just take a second to appreciate how incredibly frightening Other Mother’s true form is?
Teri Hatcher gets to totally let lose as an actress with this final form of the Other Mother. There’s no more fake niceness, no more hiding, no more tricks. Just sheer, terrifying villainy in all its glory. It’s so creepy and evil and I love it!
31) If you’re ever in a jam with a homicidal maniac, just do what Coraline did:
Throw a cat at the homicidal maniac.
32) I find the web that Coraline falls into with Other Mother perhaps the most frightening visual of the whole film. I love it.
But the way Other Mother shouts after Coraline makes her way through the door is almost equally as terrifying to me. Just the desperation and madness in her voice gives me chills.
Other Mother: “Don’t leave me! Don’t leave me! I’ll die without you!”
33) It is a classic rule of suspense, an almost Hitchcockian rule (although I don’t think he invented it), that the story is never over when you think it is.
The entire final “battle” with Other Mother’s disembodied hand, how it drags Coraline away, how Wybie has to come and save the day but it still keeps going, is all a great final horror movie moment. Just the creeping crawly uncatchable-ness of a spider and how you have to work really hard to squash it. I love that.
34) The final scene of the film resolves the visual conflict Coraline was having with the real world. Everything - hear parents, the neighbors, the flowers - is a bit brighter. A bit closer to her but not so perfectly as the Other World. Things are resolved, but everything is still in the real world. Everything is still honest and it may not be perfect, but it is a happy ending.
It has been a while since I’ve watched Coraline so in all honesty I forgot how good it was. It is an excellent piece of not only animated filmmaking but filmmaking period. The visuals and imagination is incredible, it is truly frightening at times through its use of atmosphere and (again) the visuals at hand, the writing is top notch - ESPECIALLY when it comes to our titular lead - and the voice acting is there to match (Hatcher and Fanning being the clear standouts). It is an incredible film I think everyone should see. It’s just that good.