2009, 2009 animation, animated, animated feature, animated movie, animation, animators, black cat, bobinsky, button, button eye, button eyes, buttons, cat, circus, coco beatles, Coraline, coraline jones, Dakota Fanning, Dawn French, doll, Fantasy, forcible, garden, ghost children, ghosts, gravity falls, Halloween, henry selick, Horror, horror for kids, Ian McShane, jack skellington, Jennifer Saunders, jumping mice, jumping mouse, Keith David, koumpounophobia, Laika, magic garden, mice, mice circus, moving, Neil Gaiman, Oregon, Other Father, Other Father's Song, Other Mother, other world, other wybie, pink palace, rats, scary kids movie, scary movie, scary movie for kids, sirens of the sea, spider, spink, spink and forcible, stop motion animation, stop-motion, They Might Be Giants, Wybie
Close your eyes. Take a deep breath. Hold it for three seconds. And as you slowly exhale, say to yourself:
Henry Selick directed Coraline, not Tim Burton.
Henry Selick directed Coraline, not Tim Burton.
HENRY SELICK DIRECTED CORALINE, NOT TIM BURTON.
I was waiting in line to meet Neil Gaiman at a Barnes and Noble book signing and a group of people behind me kept parroting a certain widespread falsehood to each other that drives me up a wall. Coraline was Henry Selick’s long-anticipated return to form after Monkeybone, and the film was advertised as being from the director of The Nightmare Before Christmas. HOWEVER, since that film tends to have Tim Burton’s name preceding its title, people often assume that he directed it. Ergo, those folks assumed Tim Burton directed Coraline and proceeded to bombard me with facts they pulled out of fat air to back themselves up. Never mind that a two-second glance at Wikipedia on their phones could have cleared all this up. And never mind that by attributing this stunning fantasy-horror masterpiece that Stephen King and Guillermo Del Toro wish they could have invented to the wrong man further pushes whom I consider the Chuck Jones of stop-motion animation into undeserved obscurity.
I corrected them on their erroneous assumption and pointed out that the genius we were about to meet would most likely agree with me as he himself has been trying to dispel this notion for the past decade. But they stubbornly refused to listen. No, these idiots, with all the bullheaded conviction of a staunch flat-earther, were determined to prove that Tim Burton really helmed Coralne. After all, what would Neil Gaiman, the man who wrote the book Coraline was based on and handpicked Henry Selick himself to direct the movie, know about it anyway? I quickly gave up and tried to focus on not word vomiting once I finally got to shake hands with my all-time favorite writer. In the end, I walked away with a copy of The Art of Neil Gaiman signed with a very encouraging message from the man himself, and no doubt the losers behind me ended up doing the walk of shame after Gaiman the Mighty lay waste to their narrow minds and dealt their egos an irreparable blow.
Anyways, I love Coraline. I love the animation, I love its creativity, I love most of the characters, I love how it doesn’t cop out when it comes to the scary elements, and I love how this was my introduction to Neil Gaiman’s work and to Laika Animation. As someone who is always eager to support new original animated films, I will forever kick myself for not seeing it in its original theatrical 3D because the visuals, well, they pop.
The opening credits roll over what I can only describe as a how-to/ASMR video for horror fans: A rag doll floats in through the window of an old house, and we watch from the point-of-view of something with hands made of needles as it completely remakes the doll in the form of our heroine. It’s not scary per se, but it’s off-putting while also slightly whimsical; it’s Neil Gaiman in a nutshell, really.
I’d like to point out that stop-motion for feature animation has come a long way since The Nightmare Before Christmas. Coraline’s animation is so smooth it’s easy to mistake for CGI. The downside is I miss some the little human imperfections you’d usually find in stop-motion (a thumbprint here, some hair out of place there). In fact Henry Selick fought with the producers to keep in the seams in the puppets’ faces where their mouths are swapped out, just to remind the audience that we’re watching handmade creations; but he was forced to digitally erase them in post. Though this is just a small gripe that doesn’t distract from my enjoyment of the film or downplay the hard work that was put into it. Don’t get me wrong, drawing one picture at a time is a true labor of love, but try subtly moving a figure and altering the environment around it but by bit AND while trying to film it in 3D! And actually knitting tiny sweaters using needles as thin as human hair for the characters to wear! Now THAT is dedication!
The story begins as young Coraline Jones (Dakota Fanning) and her parents Mel and Charlie (Teri Hatcher and John “I’m a PC” Hodgman) move into in their new home in the middle of nowhere, Oregon.
Wait a minute, Oregon?! Suddenly I understand why everything weird happens in this movie!
Coraline playfully explores the abandoned garden and surrounding woods, runs into a black cat and meets Wybie Lovak (Robert Bailey Jr.) whose grandmother owns the house Coraline’s moved into (it’s divided up into three apartments with adults residing in the other two). Wybie is an original character created for the film so Coraline could have someone to talk to instead stating her thoughts aloud. That’s a perfectly logical reason for his inclusion, but with it comes three problems:
First, Wybie is surprised to meet someone his own age since his grandma doesn’t rent out to people with kids (for reasons that will be made abundantly clear later). That little detail opens up a big plot hole, that being if she didn’t rent to families with children before, then why did she start now? Did Coraline’s parents fail to mention they had a daughter because they really had their heart set on the place? Did they lie about her age? Or is Wybie’s grandma going senile?
Second, Wybie will pop up to share some exposition, abruptly leave, and then repeats that cycle several times throughout the picture. Once you catch on to it, it gets tiresome. For comparison, look at the scenes in Ghostbusters where Ray, Egon or Venkman pull Winston or Dana aside to tell them about Gozer or the sudden rise in Manhattan’s spiritual energy. These are examples of moments that, when stripped of all pretension, are basically big info dumps. But the difference between these two movies is that Ghostbusters’ expository segments help move the plot along, give us more insight to the characters through their reactions to these revelations, and are delivered in such a natural matter that they’re as entertaining to watch as the actual ghostbusting; whereas in Coraline, everything stops so Wybie can spout some transparent foreshadowing. You could argue that Coraline’s neighbors are guilty of this too, but at least they’re more subtle about it. Wybie’s about as subtle as a rock to the face.
And tying into that is…well, you’ll see when we get to the end.
Wybie shows Coraline an old well that certainly won’t come into play in the third act. He departs after informing her that the dousing rod she’s used to find the well is poison oak, which gives her a nasty rash on her palms. The following morning Wybie leaves her a present: an old doll he found in his grandmother’s attic that looks exactly like her, right down to her inexplicable blue hair. Coraline reacts with mild bemusement and proceeds to lug the doll around with her all day.
Mel forbids Coraline from going outside because it’s raining and rain means mud, which she hates. Coraline points out the irony that she and her father write for gardening catalogues but Mel is a “do as I say not as I do” kind of parent and tells her to piss off. It’s the start of a notable trend that’s permeated every Laika movie thus far, that being (with a notable exception in Kubo and the Two Strings), the parents and/or parental figures fall somewhere between “Well-meaning But Woefully Ignorant” and “Someone Call Child Services On This Monstrous Arsehole”. So where do Mel and Charlie rank? Well, Charlie’s a doormat trying keep both his wife and daughter happy as he struggles to complete his assignment, Mel is recovering from a neck injury she sustained in the move, and both are rushing to meet their deadline. I’ll give them that. But Mel spending half the movie putting down Coraline, as well as calling the nice elderly couple and the disfigured Chernobyl cleanup volunteer they cohabit the house with “dingbats” and “drunk” behind their backs really pushes it. I’d say the two start in the lower middle but manage to work their way up as the film progresses.
Charlie sends Coraline on a scavenger hunt where she explores the rest of her new home. While she checks out the living room, her doll suddenly goes vanishes and reappears by a tiny door covered by wallpaper. And throughout the following scene, it sits there…as if it were watching…
Coraline begs Mel to open the door, which does a number on the wallpaper in the process, but there’s nothing but a brick wall behind it. Mel is too annoyed to bother locking the door again. At dinner Coraline is given the choice of a disgusting meal or going straight to bed without anything at all, and she chooses the latter. But in the middle of the night she’s woken by some mice who lead her back to the door. This time, it opens to a swirling, colorful tunnel.
But instead of entering Wonderland, Coraline finds herself in an alternate version of her home inhabited by…
Run in the other direction and do not look back.
Alas, Coraline ignores her basic instincts and meets her “Other Mother”, who’s just like her real mother except that she’s sweet and attentive. And, you know, the whole button eyes thing. The same goes for her Other Father, who’s more energetic and playful than her real father and can play piano with some “helping hands”. The song he plunks out was one of many written (and in the case of this particular tune, performed) by They Might Be Giants back when Coraline was supposed to be a musical. Despite my undying adoration of animated musicals, I’m glad Coraline didn’t turn into one. The movie already works so well with its story and atmosphere that it doesn’t need songs to move it along. But if they had to keep one song, they made the perfect choice with the Other Father’s Song. On its own it’s a catchy ditty, but on further viewings you’ll find it’s bursting to the seams with clever foreshadowing.
The Other Parents treat Coraline to a sumptuous meal with milkshake dispenser-chandeliers and literal gravy trains. This is the scene that epitomizes the Other World: it’s charming, fanciful, and a nicer place to look at than the real world, but there’s the pervading sensation that something’s not quite right here. Something false lurks under the surface. Yet the dreamy wish-fulfillment mostly brushes aside those concerns.
After dinner the Other Mother is eager to play some hide and seek – a little too eager, Coraline notices. Coraline tries to put her off saying she needs to get to bed, so the parents escort her to their version of her bedroom, and the Other Mother gives her some magic mud to cure her poison oak before she drifts off to sleep. Coraline wakes up back in her real room and finds the little door is bricked up again. But her rash is cured, which convinces her she didn’t dream the whole thing. Mel is in no mood to hear Coraline gush over an “imaginary” world so she tells her to go talk to her new neighbors.
Ah yes, Coraline’s neighbors. They’re already a colorful bunch even before we’re introduced to their Other World counterparts.
Meet Mr. Bobinsky (Ian McShane). He’s a lively Russian acrobat who claims to be training his pet mice to form a circus troupe, though he refuses to let anyone see them until they’re ready. But he gives her a message from the mice which proves he might not be as crazy as he appears: do not go through the little door.
Then Coraline drops in to see Miss Spink and Miss Forcible, voiced by British comedy legends Jennifer Saunders and Dawn French (did I not mention how excellent this whole cast is? Shame on me). Spink and Forcible are former burlesque actresses who spend their days raising Scottish terriers. Also according to Neil Gaiman they’re a married couple and based on their bickering I can see it. Spink and Forcible give Coraline some tea and read her tea leaves: Spink sees a foreboding hand warning of danger, and Forcible sees a giraffe.
Wybie pops in again for another quick “hi-exposition-bye” moment, this time to say that he’s not allowed inside the house because his grandmother had a twin sister who disappeared from there while she was a child. Grandma Lovak claimed she was stolen, but nobody believes her.
Despite having every reason not to, Coraline ventures through the door again that night. The Other Mother sends her to the garden to fetch “her better father”. The garden is a stunning, vibrant world of its own inhabited by hummingbirds and living florescent plants. Adding to the enchantment is Bruno Coulais’ score. Unlike his work for The Secret of Kells, which thrived on native instruments to bring ancient Ireland to life, Coulais aims for as much variety as possible for Coraline without spreading himself too thin. He uses ponderous pianos, Herrman-esque strings, and occasionally a children’s choir in unexpected ways, all to great effect. The garden is no different: it’s all rising glissandos and aaaahhhs as Coraline explores the flora and fauna before it swerves headlong into a jazzy theme; one which should be more appropriate a bustling metropolis scene than a magic garden, but it works. It really does. The Other Father comes by on his harvester/helicopter and shows Coraline the entire garden has been cultivated to look like her from above.
The Other Mother tells Coraline that Other Bobinsky has invited her to go see his mouse circus and has her bring along a friend: an Other Wybie that the Other Mother has “fixed”. But instead of asking Coraline about the rabbits, Other Wybie is rendered mute. Coraline casually saying “I like it” is supposed to be played off as the humorous ramblings of your typical self-centered child –
– but honestly, I’m with her on this. I much prefer Other Wybie over the real one. He’s not a deus-exposition-machina, the friendship he forms with Coraline is genuine, and, like Ariel after her voice was also stolen from her, his little quirks and charms come out in full force. They go see the mice perform and…just watch. You’ll thank me later.
After the show Coraline wakes up back in her ordinary room again. But her real mother has locked the door and hidden the key. The rat droppings she found there plus her daughter continuing to prattle on this better doppelganger world has finally gotten her concerned. The tension between them comes to a head as they go shopping and Mel refuses to buy Coraline a nifty pair of gloves.
In an average movie this would be the big end of Act Two blowup that splits our characters, but thankfully this is not the case. The car ride home is awkward but allows for the two to finally make an attempt at understanding each other. It’s a far more subdued conversation that sounds like an honest down-to-earth exchange between mother and daughter. Coraline tells Mel that her “dreams” are the only things that have made her happy since they moved here, and Mel, well, she tries but doesn’t quite know how to offer an easy solution for both of them.
Mel has to run out again to buy more groceries, and she promises Coraline she’ll make up for everything if all goes well with the catalogue. Coraline replies, not without some sorrow, “That’s what you always say.” And this is the moment I finally felt something for Mel.
Look at that face. That is the face of a mother who has realized she has let her daughter down god knows how many times. She’s hit so hard with this revelation she can barely mutter that she won’t be long before departing. And it should come as no surprise that this is the point that marks the drastic change of both Mel and the Other Mother’s characterizations for the rest if the film.
Once Mel leaves, Coraline finds the key and and re-enters the Other World. In a departure from the previous scenes, The Other Mother isn’t there to greet Coraline when she arrives. But she’s left her a table full of snacks, a snazzy new outfit to wear and an invitation to watch Other Spink and Forcible’s show in the theater downstairs. On the way there she meets the Cat – not an Other Cat but the Cat from before – and he can now talk in the voice of Keith David. Sweet.
The Cat warns Coraline that this world isn’t what it seems and the Other Mother is a mother as much as The Lion King live-action remake counts as live-action. Coraline watches Spink and Forcible’s show with Other Wybie and an audience full of Scottie dogs and we see the most terrifying image in the film so far.
The number Spink and Forcible perform, “Sirens of the Sea”, is a clever thinly veiled boobs vs. butt debate in the style of a burlesque number. However, they wind up wrecking the stage in their vain attempts to steal the spotlight from each other.
But that blunder is just the opening act. Other Spink and Forcible unzip their suits, step out as their younger selves and perform some death-defying acrobatics while reciting Shakespeare. All in all one of the movie’s more whimsical moments and totally devoid of any eerie undertones.
…Which makes what follows all the more unnerving.
The Other Parents meet Coraline after the show where she raves about how wonderful it was. The Other Mother asks if Coraline is happy here and suggests she could stay with them forever. She gives her a box saying there’s just one little thing she needs to do first.
Coraline comes to her senses and refuses outright before asking to sleep on it. Once inside her bedroom she barricades the door and forces herself to go to sleep, knowing she’ll reawaken in her own room. Shortly after, she finally does wakes up…
…still in the other bedroom.
Coraline can’t find the Other Mother so she tries to wring some answers from the Other Father. But he’s more listless than usual, and the helping hands less than helpful: they quickly shut him up when he mentions the other inhabitants’ strength comes from the Mother. Coraline resolves to talk to the Other Wybie but he tells her the Other Mother caught him being sad and “she didn’t like it”. And he demonstrates this by stretching his face impossibly long and speaking in a deep drone.
The hands stuff the Other Father into the piano for sharing too much and a terrified Coraline flees to the woods in a manner deliberately mirroring her flight from the Cat in the opening. Speaking of, the Cat reappears and walks her around the rest of the world, a bright empty void that leads her right back to the house. According to the Cat, the Other Mother created only what she knew Coraline would love in order to draw her into her realm. “She just wants someone to love, I think. Someone that isn’t her…Or maybe, she’d just love something to eat.” He then catches and kills one of the circus mice who’s spying on them and it devolves into its true form, a hideous button-eyed rat stuffed with sawdust.
Coraline breaks into the living room to sneak back through the door, but the Other Mother is already expecting her there. She’s also given the room a bug-themed makeover. Coraline demands that the Other Mother let her go home but their argument quickly escalates into…
All right, first things first: that morphing animation? Fucking amazing. That alone nabbed Coraline its Best Animated Feature Oscar nod. No computers, just pure 3D sculpted artistry per frame. Second? The Other Mother shedding all motherly appearances to become an approximation of her true form lets you know what you’re in for for the next hour. The cheerful veneer of the Other World is stripped away in pieces once the Other Mother gives Coraline the box of buttons, but the moment she turns into Cruella DeVil’s anorexic demon aunt is when the movie tells you it’s too late, dives headlong into horror and does NOT. LET. GO.
Of course, we know who to thank (or blame) for this shift. The Other Mother’s the closest thing to the traditional Disney villain we still clamor for in that she’s threatening, entertaining and endlessly fascinating with a killer design to boot. And whereas we outgrow being afraid of most of the Disney villains, she’s a character who can put an mature adult on edge. There’s a moment where she taps knowingly on one of her eye buttons just to tease Coraline. Coraline turns away and the tiny tap, tap continues in the background. But when Coraline faces her again, she’s completely vanished and the tapping comes from a leaky faucet. Just…gone. No sound, no trace. But you still feel her eyes everywhere, watching you.
But what IS the Other Mother, you might be asking. She can’t be something simple as just a random monster, could she? And you’re right, you smart reader, you. Neil Gaiman’s always had a thing for fairy tales and long-forgotten folkloric tropes; it’s one of the things that drew me to his writing. Though it’s never explicitly stated in the book, there’s plenty of thematic evidence that the Other Mother, or the Beldam as we later learn she’s called, is possibly one of the fair folk or fae. And if you’re thinking of Tinkerbell or fairy godmothers, you’ve got another think coming. Fairies of old were at best mischief-makers and at worst child-snatchers. Cursed with immortality, they took to toying with mortals for their amusement and played all manner of tricks to ensnare them. You could count on the fae to kidnap children and replace them with changelings, or invite a lucky woman to serve as godmother for a few days only for her to find seven years have passed by the time she’s returned home. Even the word Beldam is a mashup of the French phrase belle dame, which means both “beautiful woman”, “old woman”, or “witch”; all three certainly apply to the Beldam. How she and her world wound up trapped behind that door is a riddle for the ages, but a clear answer to that would destroy the mystique and much of the terror surrounding her.
With her terrifying transformation complete, the Beldam grabs Coraline and throws her through a mirror into a prison cell to teach her some gratitude. Coraline finds the ghosts of three button-eyed children trapped there with her, their faces eternally frozen in looks of sadness, pain and terror. They share their tale as they float around the room as if they were performing a demented synchronized swimming routine, which makes me question if they rehearsed all this for the next kid who would come along.
Like Coraline after them, the Beldam spied on the children through the doll and lured them into her world with promises of eternal fun and games. They let her sew the buttons in their eyes so they could stay with her, but she ultimately grew bored of them and “ate up [their] lives”. It’s not clear if it’s a figure of speech or she literally ate them. And frankly I’m not sure if I want to know the answer.
The Beldam hid away the children’s eyes after she took them, and their spirits can’t move on unless they’re returned. Coraline promises to help any way she can. Then she’s unexpectedly rescued by Other Wybie, whom the Beldam gave a near-permanent grin.
Other Wybie takes Coraline to the door, but cannot go with her when she begs him to. He reveals he’s made of sawdust too, a creature of this world that doesn’t belong over there. With the Beldam closing in, Other Wybie pushes Coraline through the portal and she escapes back home.
But not all is well upon her return.
The house is suspiciously empty, even though her parents’ car is parked in the driveway. The groceries are rotting on the kitchen table. Neither of them answer their phones. And it just gets better from there.
Wybie shows up again asking for the doll since his grandmother is mad at him for taking it. Coraline frantically reveals everything that’s happened as she searches for it, and Wybie quite understandably thinks she’s gone crazy. She goes to Spink and Forcible’s for help, and they make her a stone out of old candy with a hole through it. But they can’t decide if it’s good for bad things or lost things. Or maybe it’s there for her to fix it to keep her mind from wandering, I don’t know.
Night falls, and Coraline creates some makeshift dummies out of pillows to resemble her parents, curls up in their bed, and cries herself to sleep. This is the one of the most heartbreaking things I’ve seen in years, yet I’ve read some people say that it’s weird and out of character. Maybe it’s seeing an older girl do something they’d think a child half her age might do that puts them off. The book never gave away Coraline’s age though it hinted at her being very young. With that in mind, moments like this make more sense. But the way she spoke and thought there sounded unusually mature, which never really gelled well with me. The movie noticeably ages up Coraline; between her height, Dakota Fanning’s voice and the lines she’s given, I want to say she’s in her late pre-teens. It meshes better with the idea that this is a character who’s clever and brave enough to outwit an eldritch being but still innocent enough to warrant our sympathy. Regardless, the age doesn’t matter when it comes to this scene. This is still a child who, having just learned to appreciate her true family and escaped an evil imposter intent on keeping her locked up, finds herself completely alone for the first time in her life. It’s hard not to feel a shred of pity as she tries in vain to comfort herself.
The Cat wakes up Coraline later and shows her her parents are trapped in a frozen landscape inside of a mirror. He also reveals the Beldam’s doll has been altered to match her mother and father’s likenesses on each side. So did she have to alter the doll in order to bring Mel and Charlie into her world? Did this double-doll spy on them too? Wouldn’t they have questions on seeing this new doll and their daughter gone and mab=ybe finally believe –
Coraline burns the doll and prepares to rescue her family. She brings a couple of handy items with her and Spink and Forcible’s candy stone for the heck of it. The Cat follows her into the tunnel. Once he regains his voice, he tells her to challenge the Other Mother for her family since she can’t resist a good game.
On the other side Coraline runs into her mother’s arms, but it’s another trick of the Beldam’s and she steals the key. The Other Father, who’s transformed into a lumbering pumpkin man, lets slip that it’s the only key to the door, providing Coraline with one more thing she needs to take back in order to get home.
As the Other Mother makes Coraline some breakfOHMIGODJACKSKELLINGTONCAMEO!
Ahem. As I was saying, Coraline follows the Cat’s advice and challenges the Other Mother to a game: if she can find her parents and the eyes of the ghost children within a certain time limit, the Other Mother will let them all go. If she fails, she gets the button-eyes treatment.
Coraline searches the Other World, starting with the garden. The now decaying plants and animals try to eat her and take Spink and Forcible’s stone, though she fends them off with the tools she’s brought. Coraline discovers that when she looks through the hole in stone she can see the world as it really is, including where the ghost eyes are hidden. Again, this is another bit of brilliance on Neil Gaiman’s part. Looking through stones such as these in folklore allowed you to see past illusions as well as generally provide a shield against all faerie harm. I also love the irony that these are called “hag stones” or “witch stones” considering who Coraline is up against.
The first eye is on the clutch of the harvester, which the helping hands use to attack her through the Other Father. He can only apologize helplessly as he does so. But the harvester smashes through a footbridge and sinks into a pond. Before the Other Father drowns, he manages to shake off one of the hands and gives her the eye. Not a bad scene, though it does mean we lose one of the most frightening and suspenseful moments in the book. As Coraline grows dangerously close to winning, the Beldam reappears to offer her congratulations and another clue, that to check in the walled-off cellar that Coraline’s mother wouldn’t allow her to enter in her real house. But it’s a trap. Coraline finds the Other Father changed into an enormous disgusting grub-like monster. It fights the Beldam’s control just long enough to tell her to run before it attacks her and Coraline must rely on her wits once again to escape. I understand them consolidating this scene with finding the first eye so it serves more of a purpose, but on top of losing the intensity of that one moment, it removes some of Coraline’s quick wit and self-reliance as she retrieved the first eye on her own.
The second eye is in Spink and Forcible’s theater, which is now dark and abandoned, and the Scottie dogs have turned into bats. Other Spink and Forcible are now taffy monsters, and they ensnare Coraline as she tries to take the eye (a pearl ring) off their sticky fingers. Coraline disrupts a flock of the Scottie dog-bats with her flashlight and they attack the monster, freeing her and the pearl. Now there’s one eye left, and it’s in Other Bobinsky’s apartment. But the Other Mother isn’t happy with Coraline’s progress, and leaves a nasty surprise to break her spirits.
Coraline is determined to show she’s not scared, but if I were in her shoes for the following scene I’d probably be pissing myself. Other Bobinsky is just…NOPE. If his continuously warping voice and missing face weren’t enough, his skittish ever-changing movements throughout the shadowy room puts me on edge. First he flops like a possessed marionette, then slithers about snakelike, and then as if there were nothing a bunch of rats under his coat controlling him – and if you’re a musophobic, then I regret to inform you that’s what he turns out to be. The rats impede Coraline from taking the eye, and she also loses the stone. With her time about to run out, Coraline is despondent. But the Cat comes to her aid her once again. And fine, this part happened in the book too so I’m not complaining.
With the last of the eyes recaptured, the Other World begins to unravel. Coraline and the Cat make it back to the house just in time, though even that is deteriorating on the inside. And the Other Mother is now in her final form: a tall, cracked, spidery skeleton with needle hands.
The ghosts warn Coraline that the Beldam won’t honor the bargain if Coraline wins, and the door leading home is still locked. So Coraline pretends to guess that she hid her parents behind it. As the Beldam unlocks the door, the Cat shows Coraline that her parents are trapped in a snowglobe on the mantelpiece. Coraline was the one who found them in the book since she figured out how the Beldam’s creation powers really worked – she can copy but not create, which makes the snowglobe stand out since there wasn’t one at her home in the book – so boo for taking that away from her too.
The Beldam gloats that Coraline has lost, but the girl distracts her by throwing the nearest object at her – that being the Cat. Blake Snyder would not approve. The Cat scratches off the Beldam’s buttons, effectively blinding her, but the Beldam rips up the floor and nearly traps Coraline in a spider web beneath it. The Beldam carefully listens for vibrations in the web from Coraline clambering up it to find her, like many real spiders do with their prey. The people who made this movie did their homework and it shows all too well.
Coraline makes it through the door and shuts it with the help of the ghosts, cutting off one of the Beldam’s hands. But even after all that, she still has to scurry down the tunnel as the Beldam closes in on her pounding on the other side of the door whilst screaming “DON’T LEAVE ME!! I’LL DIE WITHOUT YOU!!” There has never been a more terrifying mix of heartbreak and rage in those lines. My words do this moment no justice. And considering the spider motifs that have built up in the film’s second half, the idea of the Other Mother actually dying from not trapping and feasting on Coraline after years of starvation isn’t too far off.
Coraline returns home safely with her parents, the latter having no memory of being kidnapped (considering the trauma that might otherwise ensue, I’m willing to give this case of laser-guided amnesia a pass). Mel makes good on her earlier promise by taking the family out to a nice dinner and slipping Coraline the gloves at bedtime. The Cat, who also escaped from the Beldam, puts in an appearance before Coraline falls asleep.
Coraline dreams of the ghost children thanking her for helping them pass on. But they warn her that she’s not out of danger yet. As long as she has the key, there’s always a chance that the Beldam will return. Coraline wakes up and runs outside to toss the key down the old well, all while ignoring the Cat obviously trying to warn her that it’s not safe. Figures, the moment he’s unable to talk is the moment she decides to stop listening.
The Beldam’s severed hand squeezes under the door and stalks Coraline. Before Coraline can get rid of the key, the hand snatches it and begins dragging the girl by the neck back to the house, where the little door pulsates with the rage of the desperate, hungry Beldam.
And it’s at this point I count my lucky stars that this movie wasn’t made in the 80’s, because if they did and it ended here with a creepy lullaby or an ironic uptempo doo-wop song playing over the credits, I would cut a bitch.
Luckily, the Cat alerted Wybie and he rides to the rescue. Though it’s nice to have Wybie do something other than talk, it does sadly take away some more of Coraline’s agency. In the book, Coraline was aware of the hand creeping about plotting to take back the key and get revenge; it even attacked one of Spink and Forcible’s dogs while in hiding to show it was still a threat to be reckoned with. The tension mounted over the course of several days as Coraline formed a plan and tricked the hand into eliminating the key and itself from the picture. Here, there’s just a simple fight which ends with Wybie saving Coraline by smashing the hand with a rock. Then they wrap up the remains and toss it down the well with the key.
Wybie apologizes to Coraline for not believing her and shows her a picture of his grandma with her sister, whom Coraline recognizes as one of the former ghost children. She invites them both to the garden party she and her parents are throwing. With the danger fully passed, everyone enjoys themselves and the film ends with Coraline beginning to tell Wybie’s grandma what happened to her sister.
Coraline was the perfect first outing for the then newly-formed Laika. This is the movie that established the studio as the one that’s keeping stop-motion animation alive in the states and really knows how to push the boundaries of a PG rating. Whereas most American non-Disney movies either try to be diet Disney/Pixar and/or Dreamworks, Coraline had the gumption to be its own thing and fully embrace the horror elements of the story that inspired it as much as the magical aspects. Heck, Neil Gaiman made a teaser trailer for it in the style of Alfred Hitchcock’s trailers and it’s easily one of the best I’ve ever seen. This is a movie that trusted its audience to handle the dark along with the light, and that trust paid off. It was a box-office and critical hit, and ten years later it’s become something of a cult classic to share with your children if they want to start dipping their toes into darker territory. Believe me, I’ve shown this to my eight year-old cousin. She’s a little horror freak and she loves this movie too. Plus she’s the only kid her age I know who adores Labyrinth, so I trust her judgement on nearly everything.
I’ve gone on enough about the animation but the movie is brimming with detail, from the increasing amount of insect patterns in the Other Mother’s world to the Shakespearean actors roaming the town (a nod to Oregon’s noted annual Shakespeare Festival) Not only is there a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it Jack Skellington cameo, but Henry Sellick paid tribute to one of The Nightmare Before Christmas head story artists, the late Joe Ranft, by making him and his brother the movers in the beginning. The love of the craft and the people who devote themselves to it is on full display here.
Despite my jokes about the story’s surface similarities to Alice in Wonderland, Coraline takes the tropes of the “girl tumbles into a magical world” plot and twists them to make it its own beast. It has more in common with the likes of Pan’s Labyrinth than it does Alice in Wonderland, come to think of it. This is a movie that belongs up there on the shelf with those classics.
Coraline is the world’s longest stop-motion film and I love every frame of it. By all means, read the book too. I wouldn’t say one is better than the other but both are unique, enjoyable, and delightfully spooky experiences for this season.
• TO BE CONTINUED •
Thank you for reading! Be sure to return in (hopefully!) two weeks when I review a movie requested by Amelia Jones as a reward for her donation to Fair Fight Bond Fund – but I’m leaving what it is a surprise for now!
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Artwork by Charles Moss. Screencaps courtesy of animationscreencaps.com