Hazards of the imagination

No matter your initial impressions of Coraline, it is impossible to ignore the film’s aesthetic. The film is truly a visual masterpiece.

No matter your initial impressions of Coraline, it is impossible to ignore the film’s aesthetic. Truly a visual masterpiece, it seems of little consequence that the awkwardly caricatured population of the film is involved in a series of engrossing and potentially disturbing events.

Coraline is a dark and twisted tale originally spun by master storyteller Neil Gaiman, the British author best known for the Sandman series of comics published by DC Comics’ Vertigo imprint.

Gaiman’s prolific career has produced comic books, novels, screenplays, teleplays and surprisingly, young-adult fantasy/horror novels.

Like much of Gaiman’s writing, Coraline—a horror novella published in 2002—is a dark and ominous work. The same can be said for the film adaptation.

The hidden menace of Coraline‘s world lies not beyond the foggy paths and hills that surround her family’s new home in (of all places) Ashland, Ore. Rather, it is in the recesses of the home itself, hidden behind a secret doorway.

One day while exploring the cavernous, empty rooms of her new residence in the Pink Palace (a rickety boarding house), Coraline (voiced by Dakota Fanning) discovers the aforementioned doorway that serves as a portal into a mirror world.

There, Coraline discovers a carnival reflection of her parents and neighbors. This mirror world is vibrant and beautiful, with Coraline‘s “other mother” (Teri Hatcher) and “other father” (John Hodgeman) attentive and patient, loving and warm.

If it seems too good to be true, well … you know it is. Coraline‘s other parents, along with the rest of this world’s inhabitants, possess no eyes. Rather, in the place of eyes, there are buttons offering an enduring but disturbing gaze.

The “other parents” wish to keep Coraline in their world, but the further Coraline explores and engages this distorted reflection of reality, she becomes increasingly aware of a sinister affectation with respect to how this other world is constructed.

Gaiman’s Coraline translates beautifully to the screen. Brought to life by Henry Selick, director of The Nightmare Before Christmas, and the good folks at Laika Studios right here in Portland, Coraline is the first stop-motion animated film to be shot in stereoscopic 3-D.

Selick employs the 3-D conservatively and in a much subtler manner than one might expect. Instead of tossing objects at the audience, Selick treats the 3-D as a powerful tool, bringing a greater depth and gravity to Coraline‘s world.

For those fans of the world-renowned Oregon Shakespeare Festival, keep your eyes peeled for some familiar banners and masks when the family makes a brief foray into the center of town.

The story itself is an evident parable for adolescent wish fulfillment as Coraline seeks the excitement of a world outside her own. The mirror world serves as an allegory for the potentially dangerous nature of the mind, blurring reality with fantasy, creating a sometimes perilous nature in which the film’s heroine functions.

For such a wildly inventive film, it is surprising that the ostensible message is one of warning with respect to an unchecked imagination.

This hardly seems a consistent message for children whose imaginations are frequently encouraged to grow and flourish without limit and with the implication of no consequence. But Coraline, much as it’s tonal predecessor The Nightmare Before Christmas, hardly seems a film for children.

Where Nightmare offered a resolute criticism of the crass misinterpretation and commercialization of Christmas in brilliantly executed form, so too does Coraline present the dangers of an excess, one that blurs the lines between invention and self-deceit.

Ultimately, Coraline is a beautifully shot film, dark, gripping and vibrant in a way that stop-motion films usually are not. But some of the menacing elements of the film may be distressing to younger viewers.

For those old enough to enjoy the film without being upset, Coraline is an exciting, often eccentric work that indirectly explores the border of imagination and reality with a stern message: Be careful what you wish for, you just might get it.

Check next week for interviews from Neil Gaiman, Henry Selick and Dakota Fanning
Photos and video from the red carpet premiere of
Coraline on Mindloop, the Vanguard Arts blog.