Coraline, Coraline, Coraline

26 Jul

Coraline CatOn the flight out to Minnesota, I watched Coraline, which has just come out on DVD. I plugged in my earphones, fired up the movie, and then… just sat there, transfixed, for the entire running time. Woah. I can’t recommend seeing it enough – it’s an work of incredible, dark beauty, a painstakingly hand-made fairy tale in which no expense was spared bringing the director’s vision to life. What’s more, the film burrows straight into the viewer’s subconscious and delivers an experience that will haunt you long after the credits have rolled. It just might be my favorite move of the year.

As I’ve previously waxed rhapsodic about my love of The Nightmare Before Christmas, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that I was excited for Coraline – after all, it was written and directed by Henry Selick, the same guy who directed Nightmare, and it uses the same stop-motion technology. However, free from the (increasingly tired, IMO) influence of Tim Burton, Selick has, with Coraline, created something that works just as well, and at times, even better, than his previous film.

Nightmare was a really fun movie that leaned heavily on its incredible music and set-pieces, but the overarching story, the moral of the whole thing, always felt a little bit weak to me – something about being yourself, and being happy for that, but the implementation was just not quite firing on all cylinders. This is not the case with Coraline.

There is a noticeable similarity between the protagonists’ character arcs in both films – Jack/Coraline is tired of his/her existence and takes it for granted, finds magical portal to other world, wants to live in other world, realizes in moment of great peril that perhaps other world is not all it’s cracked up to be, finds way home with new-found appreciation for everyday life… However, the big difference between the films is what’s going on under the surface – in Nightmare, all of the little visual coups des graces, the fun details, seemed created in service of making a whimsical, fully-realized world. In Coraline, the same sorts of details feel designed to creep you the fuck out.

Coraline Doll Dissection 2

Take the film’s opening, which is one of the most brilliant, unsettling credit sequences I’ve seen in a long time. Spidery, metallic hands methodically disrobe, cut open, and gut a girl-shaped cloth doll, emptying out its innards, turning it inside out, and re-stitching it. The whole thing is just horrific – by showing us just enough to get us thinking about what it would be like should we be watching a real girl instead of a doll, the sequence sets the film’s tone right away.

Coraline Birth Canal

Paging Dr. Freud, you've got a call on three.

Coraline is filled with that sort of trickery – rather than merely showing the viewer something, it works at our subconscious, allowing us to come to our own (most assuredly not PG-rated) conclusions. In that way, it’s the most Jungian film I’ve seen in a long time. Modern Jackass alert: in a brilliant play on the idea of motherhood, Coraline crawls to the new world through a long, pink tunnel that not-so-coincidentally resembles a birth canal. She is then “reborn” into a world in which her mother is a freakish caricature of maternal love, in which, indeed (spoiler) that mother is really a soul-sucking metallic spider, a monster who will kill her by “loving her to death,” a process which we are left to imagine for ourselves. This world is initially thought by Coraline to be a dream, to exist only in her unconscious, And do I need to get into the deep, disturbing concept of cutting out a little girl’s eyes and sewing on buttons? At the film’s conclusion, once our heroine has realized the truth, saved her parents, and escaped, where does she throw the key to the tunnel? That’s right, straight down a well. Ahem.

There are other, smaller pokes at our subconscious, as well, several of which are literary in nature – in an homage to Alice in Wonderland (and I challenge Tim Burton’s remake to come close to capturing the magic on display in Selick’s film), we’ve got a grinning, know-it-all cat who appears and disappears at will, and there’s a brilliant scene in which a giant cockroach shuffles from the dark to block a doorway. (Are you there, Kafka? It’s me, Coraline.)

The edges of every scene are filled with subtle, violent imagery, like how Coraline’s Other Mother uses an oven mitt shaped like a rooster head (implying severing of said head), as well as more overtly disturbing stuff including a particularly memorable scene in which the gymnast from upstairs jumps down and lands over Coraline just after she’s picked up a pair of pruning shears, resulting in a chilling near-castration:

Coraline Almost Accidental Castration

Yikes. It’s onscreen for a fraction of a second, and film doesn’t even comment on it, opting to just keep on moving, letting anyone who caught it do the math.

From the beginning to the end credits, the music is absolutely incredible. Bruno Coulais is a French composer whose work I’ve never heard – he did the score for Microcosmos and Winged Migration, and while I haven’t seen those two movies, I’ve heard that they’re both great, and could see Coulais’ music working in a documentary. It’s all plucked harps, children’s choirs, guitars and percussion, marimba and hand drumming, with a brilliant sense of motion – sort of French lyrical song by way of Thomas Newman. The songs are mostly en Francais, which heightens the feeling that you’re watching an old-school European fairy tale. It’s really beautiful stuff – you can hear one of the main tracks here, and I recommend just putting it on, watching the images, and listening.

Other Father Song CoralineAs if Coulais hadn’t done enough to win me over with his score, at one point in the film the button-eyed “Other Father,” (voiced by John Hodgman), sings the wonderfully weird “Other Father Song,” which, about five notes in, I realized was written by They Might Be Giants and sung by John Flansburgh. The song is really fun, and just weird enough to seem celebratory while also relentlessly pinging viewers’ creep-out detectors. Bonus points for the lyric “She’s as cute as a button in the eyes of everyone who ever laid their eyes on Coraline.” Ha ha ha *shudder*.

There is so much more to love about this movie – I mean, a trapeze show is performed for an audience of 200-odd hand-made miniature Scottish Terriers – but if you’ve seen it, you already know what I’m talking about. It’s a work of incredible imagination and the product of an unfathomable amount of hard work. Ye gods, to hand-make so many miniature people, their clothes, their house and surroundings, and then to bring them to life one by one… it’s a labor of love the scale of which blows my mind.

I can’t recommend Coraline enough. It is without a doubt one of the best films I’ve seen this year, and seems destined to be one that I re-watch for years to come.

Coraline Other Parents


4 Responses to “Coraline, Coraline, Coraline”

  1. thesoniashow July 26, 2009 at 10:16 am #

    I loved, loved, loved Coraline! I’ve already started work on my Halloween costume …

  2. David July 27, 2009 at 12:26 pm #

    The blu-ray should be arriving any day now! I recently got the blu-ray of Nightmare Before Christmas and wow, wow, wow. I’ve never seen it look so good. It felt like I was watching it for the first time.

  3. Daniel August 25, 2009 at 8:32 am #

    Did you catch where the story was set? Ashland, Oregon – my homtown! When the package arrived on the doorstep with MY zipcode on it I jumped up and shouted with glee in the middle of the theater. Great movie and nice review, Kirk.

    • Kirk August 25, 2009 at 8:41 am #

      I saw that, and totally thought of you! In addition to setting the film there, I think that they actually made the film up there, as well – very cool.

      I never knew Oregon could look so much like Romania!

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