2009 was a renaissance year for animation. Disney, Miyazaki, and Ireland’s Cartoon Saloon brought hand-drawn magic back into theaters; Pixar’s Up became the second animated film nominated for a Best Picture Oscar; but most importantly, Coraline revived interest in the dying art of stop-motion animation. Ten years later, let’s look back at how they did it.
The Devil’s in the Details
Let’s get this out of the way, Henry Selick is the director of Coraline, not Tim Burton. It’s easy to assume that since this movie is touted as “From The Director of The Nightmare Before Christmas”. But a trip to IMDb will clear that up right away. Selick showcases his years of expertise in Coraline. The movie also has two decades of technological advancement over Nightmare, and it shows.
Coraline‘s puppets were created through 3D printing; this makes it the very first animated film to do so. But its best touches are the human ones. The tiny sweaters the characters wear are all knitted by one person. Every freckle and stray hair is carefully crafted by hand. Human beings are what bring these figures to life, not computers.
In Wes Anderson’s stop motion masterpieces, the charm comes from the imperfections; the slightly stilted frame rate, the remnants of fingerprints where the animators last touched the figures. By comparison, Coraline‘s animation is so smooth you could mistake it for computer animation. That makes moments like the Other Mother’s metamorphosis or the mouse circus all the more impressive.
Coraline blazes a trail paved by Alice in Wonderland, The Wizard of Oz, and Pan’s Labyrinth. A young girl’s visits to a fantasy realm becomes a metaphor for her first steps into adulthood. Doppelgangers from her home world provide obstacles and aid on her journey. Our protagonist is the best example of a strong female lead — brave and curious, but not out of touch with her emotions. She’s one you’d want to follow to the Other World and back. The lesson she learns is refreshing; You can’t have everything you ask for, and those who claim they can don’t have your best interests at heart.
In keeping with the themes of The Nightmare Before Christmas, Coraline isn’t afraid to get spooky. My first viewing brought me back to being a child watching moments like the Queen’s transformation in Snow White or Jurassic Park’s T-Rex — terrified, but enraptured. My need to see our heroine pull through won over fear. I can see Coraline as a new rite of passage for young audiences. If they can handle the scary bits, then they can become more open to new experiences.
There’s no other film out there that rivals Coraline‘s creativity. It sparks your imagination and doesn’t leave you all the answers; for example, where did the Other Mother come from? What kind of creature is she? What’s her connection to the black cat? And why after years of refusing tenants with children did Wybie’s grandmother allow the Joneses to move in?
This blend of artistry and shrewdness is what set the stage for LAIKA’s future stop-motion masterpieces (here’s hoping Missing Link will be as entertaining). We also wouldn’t have Anomalisa or The Little Prince, which use the medium to handle more mature topics. Coraline belongs to the top tier of animation, the one that appeals to the best of both children and adults. Its cult audience is still growing. Here’s hoping the next ten years will be just as kind to it.
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