The month of October is upon us, meaning it is time for ghost stories, trick-or-treats, and horror movies! And, yes, there are even a few scary cartoons to be seen. Among them, the stop-animation film Coraline is perhaps one of the most authentic animated horror films, meaning it actually aims to frighten rather than simply borrowing horror elements to place in a comic or adventure setting. The film’s themes and events are remarkably mature and sufficiently disturbing to rank well within the genre. Additionally, the film is a feast for the eyes with the traits of a Halloween classic.
** spoiler alert **
The story begins typically enough with our heroine and her family moving into a new home, a dilapidated old Victorian conversion called the Pink Palace Apartments. It is evident that this was a move of necessity, and Coraline finds everything about her new surroundings completely dismal. It doesn’t help that her parents, both writers, are too wrapped up in their work to pay her much attention. Worse, the only other kid around is the landlady’s grandson, a strange boy named Wybie who Coraline finds instantly annoying.
The premise is built upon some pretty well-heeled horror tropes but the story is nonetheless strong. The idea of wishing for “better” parents is something everyone who has been a child can relate to, and the lesson of being careful what one wishes for is timeless, to be sure. The story has a better share of twists and surprises than the average live-action horror which would more likely rely on pop-scares. None of those here. Rather, the viewer is treated to a nicely layered narrative with just enough weirdness to keep the mood always a bit unsettled.
Among the strong suits of the script is the rather limited cast. Stop-motion in general seems prone to teeming with all manner and shape of characters, but this rather intimate collection of individuals feels close like a blanket. (Recommended for late-night viewing, by the way.) Neither is the story weighed-down by awkward explanations. There are some plausible hints and conjecture among the characters as to what motivates the other mother, but the uncertainty about her actions makes her seem more real and, thus, more threatening. This also keeps the pacing crisp and the dialogue relevant to the action.
Moreover, it is through visuals that the film achieves most of its impact. The story takes place in two worlds that are distinguished primarily through light and color. However, the dreary days don’t always contrast so sharply against the clear nights. Acrobatic action sequences defy one to believe that these are mere puppets on screen. As the story turns dark, their twisted forms and macabre movements become increasingly disturbing. Finally, the films iconic visual, the doll-like black button eyes on seemingly human characters is not only unsettling in itself, but it also displays a degree of self-awareness from the picture that makes the message seem all the more direct.
Fear not, though enjoyable to adults the film is built for a juvenile audience so it won’t send you ducking under the covers. On the other hand, it might have you looking twice at toy dolls to see if those button eyes are looking back at you.