The Beyond
Fernando F. Croce on Coraline

Floating through a window, a small ragdoll is clutched by metallic, skeletal hands and methodically dissected before our eyes. Scissors slice through stitch after stitch, a razor slash across the mouth releases a shock of foamy cotton, a steely claw yanks out the stuffing with one swift tug. A sort of resurrection promptly follows this autopsy, as the placid toy has its skin turned inside out, refilled with sawdust and sent drifting back into the night, all scored to a soft, tinkling lullaby. The sequence suggests a short by Czech surrealist Jan Svankmajer more than a Hollywood animated release, though the impish malevolence palpable in Coraline’s opening moments unmistakably belongs to Henry Selick. Released in 3D in 2009, this fantasy was the stop-motion specialist’s first feature in nearly a decade, and Selick (who, as the director of The Nightmare Before Christmas, once posited that Noel might be as haunted a night as Halloween) positively feasts on the artisanal splendor and macabre flashes of this Alice in Wonderland retelling.

The floppy plaything seen in the preamble is next spotted as a piece of bric-a-brac in the Pink Palace Apartments, a crumbling Victorian boarding mansion newly occupied by a family of tenants. Sharp-eyed, blue-haired and prematurely sardonic, 11-year-old Coraline Jones (voiced by Dakota Fanning) is an explorer fueled by boredom as much as by curiosity. Stuck in her unfurnished new home, she passes the time by counting the creepy-crawlies in the shower stall, stomping in the inhospitable outdoors, and generally getting on the nerves of her busy parents. Glued to their laptop screens, Mom (Teri Hatcher) and Dad (John Hodgman) are too involved in their upcoming book on gardening to notice their restless daughter. The place’s other residents, eccentric entertainers grown bulbous over the course of retirement, don’t much excite the young heroine, either. In the dilapidated attic, Mr. Bobinksy (Ian McShane) collects rancid cheese for his old band of rodents; in the overstuffed basement, former burlesque divas Miss Spink (Jennifer Saunders) and Miss Forcible (Dawn French) keep moldy candy and shelves of embalmed Scottie dogs. The only one close to her age is a rambunctious neighbor named Wybie (Robert Bailey Jr.), who, with his big, skewed noggin and scratchy voice, resembles a friendly tween Igor.

Unimpressed with this world, Coraline literally stumbles into another one. During her wanderings around the house, she discovers a tiny door on her bedroom wall that reveals a glowing tunnel. Crawling into it, she finds herself in an alternate version of her life. Not only have the muddy grays back home been replaced with a vibrant tutti-frutti palette, but people in this “Other” setting are the opposite of their usual selves. Other Mother is perky and attentive, Other Father works on a jaunty piano instead of a blocky computer, and both welcome the visitor with piles of toys and treats. Mr. Bobinsky’s faded circus uniform is now resplendent as he and his trained mice captivate Coraline with musical extravaganzas, while Spink and Forcible unzip their sagging forms and dazzle with youthful trapeze acts. Even the backyard itself lights up for her, every flower and critter pulsating effulgently in her presence. “Everything is right in this world, kiddo,” says Other Father, and the delighted protagonist can only agree . . . until the hitch behind this garden of delights is divulged.

The first crack in the enchantment is the fact that everybody has buttons sewn to their faces, making their eyes as black as a shark’s. “There’s just one tiny thing you need to do,” chirps Other Mother while presenting Coraline with needle, thread, and a pair of shiny buttons. Coraline was adapted from Neil Gaiman’s 2002 book, and the manner in which the fancifulness of this dream world darkens is typical of the author’s acknowledgment of the thin separation between fairy tales and horror yarns. Perspectives shift abruptly and alarmingly; tail-wagging pooches give way to screeching bats; a character’s frown is stapled into a rictus grin. Confronted by the heroine, Other Mother is uncloaked as an elongated ogress who specializes in collecting children’s souls. (Her spectral former victims languish forlornly inside a mirror.) When Coraline discovers that the villainess has captured her real parents, the canal bridging the two worlds goes from Carrollesque to Orphic. Helping her is a half-feral feline known simply as Cat (Keith David, in the film’s standout vocal performance), whose mysterious mix of suavity and savageness may have something to do with his ability to move freely between realms.

Even before the secret door is found, Coraline abounds in passageways and mystical mobility. In fact, the protagonist is first glimpsed in the middle of a little incantation of her own, holding a dowsing rod like an amulet while searching for a well. (“The great Michigan water witch” is Wybie’s playful nickname for her when they meet.) The fluid border between contrasting universes has long been a motif in Selick’s work, from The Nightmare Before Christmas to his Roald Dahl adaptation James and the Giant Peach to the jumbled, fascinating Monkeybone, and here he locates an ideal topography in the sulky, inquisitive, still unformed conscious of the eponymous “dizzy dreamer.” This fluidity is richly reflected in Selick’s meticulous stop-motion technique, which mixes handcrafted puppetry with animated camera movements to create a simultaneously liquid and tactile screen space. There’s a marvelously unstable quality to his creations: when Coraline and Cat later in the film amble into “the empty part of the world,” the blanched void seems to follow them and the landscape crumbles like bits of peeling wallpaper.

The film momentarily slips in its climactic confrontation, where a motorbike-riding Wybie charges to the protagonist’s rescue in what had been building up to be her own triumph as an adventuress. This late dash of conventionally masculine derring-do doesn’t lessen the fact, however, that Coraline is a story deeply attuned to the complex emotions shared between mothers and daughters. Traces of unspoken resentment and weariness shade Coraline’s rapport with her mom, just as parental neediness becomes a monstrous, warping force in the scenes with Other Mother. (“I’ll die without you,” pleads the maternal doppelganger as she reaches out with spidery hands.) Refreshingly, the key relationship in the film is not so much neatly resolved as gently mended, with Coraline and her mother’s awkward yet warm exchange near the end (“I hate dirt, though the flowers look nice,” “Thanks, Mom”) hinting at a gradual but heartfelt understanding between the two women. In Selick’s animated fable, as in many a horror story, how the monsters rip through the scenery is far less crucial than what they illuminate about the characters’ inner struggles.

Coraline played in 3D December 20 as part of See It Big, a series co-programmed by Reverse Shot and Museum of the Moving Image.