The little girl watching Coraline down the row from me was not comfortable with what she was seeing. “Mommy,” I heard her say, and not for the last time, “I want to go home.” Coraline is rated PG and is animated — stop-motion — but I’m not sure it’s for kids. It may not even be for some adults, because at certain points, it gets stubbornly, freakishly, nightmarishly weird. That little girl may, for all I know, grow up and look back fondly on this movie that scared her, the way some of my generation look back on Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory or even Yellow Submarine (yeah, the Blue Meanies freaked me out when I was little; shut up). Or she might not. Either way, parents should be informed.
Based on Neil Gaiman’s 2002 young-adult novel, Coraline is the long-overdue third stop-motion feature by Henry Selick, who made 1993’s The Nightmare Before Christmas and 1996’s James and the Giant Peach. (He also directed the live-action flop Monkeybone, but we shall not speak of that.) In a computer-animated world, stop-motion puppeteers are few and far between; it’s basically just Selick and Nick Park (of Wallace & Gromit), and both men lavish years of work on each project. Park wants to make you laugh; Selick wants to make you gasp and shudder. There is something uncompromisingly not-human, and not-nice, about Selick’s characters. Sentimentality is as alien to him as his worlds are to us.
Coraline (voiced by Dakota Fanning) is disappointed in her workaholic parents and depressed because of a recent move that has left her friends back in Michigan. In a disused room in the house she finds a mysterious door, which leads to an alternate reality in which her parents are unfailingly attentive and fun. They also have black buttons for eyes. And if Coraline wishes to stay in this strange but suspiciously comforting new world, she, too, must give up her eyes for black buttons. That barely scratches the surface; there are also performing mice, scantily clad former film actresses singing for an audience of Scottish terriers, ghost children, and many other things alarming and bizarre.
The movie would make a good trippy double feature with MirrorMask, also written by Gaiman, in which another girl tires of her family and enters a disturbing fantasy world. Gaiman, I guess, is trying to tell young girls (he has two daughters) to be satisfied with their lot, since fantasy turns out to be darker and more frightening than the reality they wish to escape. These movies are actually anti-fantasy films, though Coraline is much more rigorously structured than MirrorMask; the flights of oddity are usually rooted in some identifiable goal or reality.
Many will cherish Coraline and set it on a rarefied personal shelf alongside Nightmare Before Christmas and other goth-inflected fantasias. I found it easy to admire but hard to love. The movie is — there’s really no other way to put it — gorgeously off-putting, especially when Coraline’s Other-Mother gets taller and thinner and turns into a sort of hybrid praying mantis and spider with sharp metal claws. Coraline is a considerable achievement of visual dread; even when things look sunny, a part of you waits for something equivalent to the shot in Blue Velvet of a robin with a bug in its mouth. (The blue tunnel between worlds in Coraline undulates like the blue curtains at the start of the David Lynch film.) Selick’s vision of darkness here is so convincing that we don’t believe the nightmare world of button-eyed ghouls is really gone. The movie works brilliantly on its own ghastly terms, but I can’t say I’d want to see it again.