Review: ‘Coraline’ is Delightfully Dark, Creative and Fun

From Henry Selick, the director of The Nightmare Before Christmas and Neil Gaiman, one of the most brilliant writers of our time, comes the clever and delightfully dark tale of a young girl named Coraline and her wild adventure into an alternate reality.
By  · Published on February 8th, 2009

You have to love the craft of filmmaking. There are some films that are so creative and so beautifully executed that it reminds you that Hollywood isn’t just filled with remake happy executives and money grubbing former music video auteurs. There are, oddly enough, some really creative people out there doing really creative things. And one such person is Henry Selick. You may know him as that director who is so often confused with Tim Burton, even though he looks nothing like him. Selick was the man who in 1993, long before the great wave of CG animation, delivered a spectacular landscape and equally brilliant story in a stop-motion world with The Nightmare Before Christmas. At the time, Selick may have been ahead of himself in the creation of a movie so wildly imaginative and so full of life even though it was also very dark. And now, some 15 years later, Selick has delivered a similar kind of experience with Coraline — a film so delightfully creative, vibrant and yes, a little dark that it once again proves that Mr. Selick is a rare creature in the world of filmmaking, that rare kind of filmmaker whose creativity and vision knows no bounds.

From the twisted, brilliant mind of Neil Gaiman comes the story of Coraline Jones, voiced by Dakota Fanning, a young girl whose gardening catalog writing parents have just moved her from Michigan to Oregon, away from her friends and a life she enjoyed. Now she is stuck living in a big, creepy pink house with a diverse assortment of odd neighbors, including a Russian acrobat/mice trainer voice by Ian McShane, and two absent minded old stage actresses voiced by Jennifer Saunders and Dawn French. And inside the house — where her parents continue to ignore her due to their high volumes of work — Coraline finds a mysterious door. Behind the door she finds an alternate version of her life in which her parents are warm and cater to her every need, a world where everything is perfect. But Coraline quickly realizes that there is something a little off about this alternate world — and it is more than just the fact that everyone has buttons for eyes.

It is a story light and whimsical enough to keep the kids entertained and stay out of their dreams, but also as ambitiously dark as anything we might expect from Mr. Gaiman. Luckily as we continue to watch Coraline go deeper into this mysterious bizzaro life, we are so caught up in the beautiful visuals and fun characters that we totally miss the dark themes — all of the stuff that would otherwise be very edgy if it weren’t masked so brilliantly. It is a talent that Henry Selick has always had as a storyteller, the ability to tell us a story with a great deal of layers, and plenty of darkness, without it being too scary for the little ones. The only problem that I found with it is that it hiccups a few times toward the end, lingering a bit as it closes up its neat little dark fairy tale. But that’s nothing to worry about, as the film never once feels as if it is dragging.

Another talent that I’ve already mentioned is Mr. Selick’s immensely creative work in stop-motion. The attention to detail literally jumps off of the screen, especially in 3D. Selick and team have created some of the most beautiful landscapes, some of the most unique characters and some of the most seamless stop-motion animation since, well, they did it the first time with Nightmare. In addition to some of the stunning visuals, the voice cast for the film is expertly chosen. You may not know this, but there is such a thing as a ‘Michigan accent,’ and Dakota Fanning nails it as she breathes life into Coraline. As well, Teri Hatcher’s voice is perfect for both sides of Coraline’s mom — she easily goes back and forth between the kindhearted, yet often annoyed real mom and the sweet, yet ultimately diabolical “other” mother.

If you haven’t figured it out by now, this is a film that you should see no matter how old you are. Furthermore, this is a movie that you should see in 3D, as it is one of the first films that I’ve seen that uses the RealD digital format (or any form of 3D for that matter) to give the film depth above all other things, avoiding anything that feels to gimmicky. It is a beautiful film either way, but seeing it in 3D adds that little extra something special that takes Coraline from being a clever, creative film to a truly special moviegoing experience. Though to be fair, I have a feeling that it would still be a great film even in 2D. As I mentioned, it is one of those films that just warms your heart as a movie fan, as it proves that creativity and innovation aren’t dead in Hollywood — they are very much alive and well, especially in the world of Henry Selick.

Neil Miller is the persistently-bearded Publisher of Film School Rejects, Nonfics, and One Perfect Shot. He's also the Executive Producer of the One Perfect Shot TV show (currently streaming on HBO Max) and the co-host of Trial By Content on The Ringer Podcast Network. He can be found on Twitter here: @rejects (He/Him)