By Jonathan Decker (Family therapist, film critic)
Since the Brothers Grimm penned their morbid fairy tales (and probably before), children and adults have escaped into fantasy to safely explore the dangers of reality. Tales such as Hansel and Gretel, and in the last century The Wizard of Oz, have provided imaginative worlds with dangers at every turn. The purpose of such tales was always to warn, educate, and provide a backdrop for moral instruction.
Such is true of Coraline a cinematic fairy tale crafted by writer Neil Gaiman and director Henry Selick (The Nightmare Before Christmas). Based on a book by Gaiman, this visually astounding stop-motion masterpiece is a reminder that not all fairy tales have wistful princesses and happy musical numbers (sorry, Disney). This is a return to the creepy morality tales of yore, and while young children may have nightmares from the unsettling mood and tone, older children and adults will likely delight in both its imagination and its message.
Coraline’s title character is a plucky and resilient child (expertly voiced by Dakota Fanning) who has moved to a dusty, lonely old house in Washington with her parents. Both are neglectful in their own way: her father is caring enough, but is constantly aloof, while her mother (voiced by Teri Hatcher) is so busy that she hardly notices her daughter, and is often annoyed by her when she does.
One night, Coraline discovers a portal into a parallel existence: same house, same parents, but here everything is exactly as she wishes it were in reality. The dreariness of her true home is replaced by vibrant colors and spectacle. Her neglectful parents are replaced by updated versions who live only to lavish her with affection and wish-fulfillment. Soon Coraline begins to greatly prefer the alternate life to her actual one. It’s all seems perfect, but she (and the audience) cannot shake the unsettling suspicion that something isn’t quite right. Only a sage old black cat (who is realistically silent in the “real world,” but suavely vocal in other) seems to understand the dangers behind the seductive facade of Coraline’s dream world.
To say more would be to ruin the surprises, but suffice to say that the film contains excellent messages for those who look for discussion points to share with their children afterward. The dream world serves as a perfect metaphor for the cunningly disguised lies of harmful people, as well their tactics of using subtle counterfeits to grant people’s wishes in the short run, while slowly entangling (and later chaining) them in the long run.
As my mother always said: “If it seems too good to be true, it probably is.” With regards to Coraline’s dream parents, they may be seen as a practical warning against slick strangers who might lure children away by promising them exactly what they want (much like the “candy man” character in Chitty Chitty Bang-Bang). The black cat, whose warnings initially go unheeded, may be seen to serve a similar purpose to parents, friends, and teachers. He is a wise, caring character who sees and understands things that the protagonist does not yet comprehend, tries to keep her from harm, and helps her when she is in peril.
Furthermore, the film not only reminds parents of the need to give their children attention and affection, but also helps children understand the stresses of parenting and the need for gratitude for the parents they do have.
In addition to serving as a lasting morality tale, Coraline is a terrific artistic achievement. While computer-generated animation is en vogue at the moment, the terrific and nearly seamless stop-motion animation here is something different and gorgeous to behold. The film is currently showing both in 3D and as a regular feature; I recommend that you see it in 3D if possible, as the richly designed sets and characters were meant to be experienced in that format. Far from a mere gimmick, the 3D in this case actually brings more life to the story, revealing layers and depth that were actually created by hand and filmed, one meticulous frame at a time.
Parents should be warned, that while the film contains no real violence, it is full of unsettling images and a creepy atmosphere that will doubtless give nightmares to little ones (much like the wicked witch from The Wizard of Oz, though this is a good deal scarier). There is mild profanity. A scantily-dressed and buxom elderly woman, though a clay-animated figure and far from titillating, may be offensive to some. That said, for older kids, teens, and adults who possess rich imaginations and an appreciation for this type of film, Coraline is a terrific night at the movies, and worth the added fee to view in 3D.
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Jonathan Decker is the clinical director of Your Family Expert. He is a licensed marriage and family therapist, husband, and father of five. Jonathan earned a masters degree in family therapy from Auburn University as well as a bachelor's degree in clinical psychology from Brigham Young University. He is an actor, author, and television personality.