Director Henry Selick Crafts Romantically Macabre World In“Coraline”

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Courtesy of Focus Features

 Henry Selick is known for his direction on “The Nightmare Before Christmas,” “James and the Giant Peach” and his seminal 1981 work “Seepage,” which showcased his distinguished taste for developing both classical and postmodern animation techniques. Starting Feb. 6, he delivers a maniacal stop-motion animation adaptation of writer Neil Gaiman’s dark novella “Coraline.” Selick’s “Coraline” is just as human as it is mythical.

In an interview given on Jan. 21 in San Francisco, Selick talked about his stylistic approach to visually representing Neil Gaiman’s characters.

“This is what I like to do in animated films and with ‘Coraline’ in particular … I’m treading this fine line between cartoons and live action. I want you to believe that these are flesh and blood, that Coraline could die if she’s trapped in the “other” world. But I found that if your designs get too close to live action — if they start to resemble real people too much, I think they suffer in comparison and they feel dead so I like to exaggerate the design.”

Selick’s obsession with that which is impossibly skeletal and gaunt is amongst many of the visual accents presented in “Coraline.” The stop-motion film empowered its animators to showcase their acute sense of detail. Everything from Coraline’s painted blue nail polish to the sparkles on individual threads of her silvery-purple knit sweatshirt appear so well shaped, it feels as though you could reach out and touch them. While these details are so much a part of the magic that Selick and his team bring to Gaiman’s characters, Selick calls his craft, stop motion, “imperfect.” When asked why he chose this mode in particular, Selick explained, “Stop motion shakes with life. You can feel the artist’s hand. It is inherently creepy, but it’s also very warm.”

It’s difficult not to draw comparisons to Selick’s 1996 film “The Nightmare Before Christmas.” Jack, the anti-hero of “Nightmare,” is determined to marry the worlds of Christmas and Halloween. Coraline is a pointed, brooding young girl interested in magic and winning the love and attention of her parents. Both films engage in grim parallels of the protagonists’ realities, but where “Nightmare” is unnerving and manic, “Coraline” is contemplative and mature. For instance, the score in Selick’s latest film takes a back seat. The music of “Coraline” moves more like the glue of the narrative rather than the conductor of plot points. Usage of all things orchestral is quaint, but not subtle as it weaves in and out of Coraline’s adventure. This is composer Bruno Coulais’ first time scoring for a narrative film.

The film begins as Coraline is exploring her new surroundings in a foggy residential plot of land. She has moved to a new house in a rainy town with her fond but busy botanist parents. She meets Wybie, a filmic addition to Gaiman’s original story, who is a strange neighborhood boy interested in magic and adventure like Coraline. The two quibble competitively about the mastery of operating a water rod from the moment they meet. Aggravated by her new acquaintance, she assumes that the button-faced doll that appears on her doorstep the next day is a gift from Wybie. Repelled by her preoccupied parents, Coraline finds herself exploring her new house with her doll, a partially autonomous object that becomes lost and then found, pointing Coraline to a secret door inside the house. It is when Coraline opens the doors to this mystical canal that we experience the riveting experience of 3-D — something I had previously thought of as a failed commercial invention. Instead the surrealism of manipulation of color and motion left my body tight and wanting more. Once Coraline reaches the other end of the lateral shoot she walks into a home much like her own where everything parallels the house she left. The things in this house have an undead quality to them, a staple for the visual condition of all Selick’s characters. Inside Coraline’s “other” room the porcelain turtle she once had is now a skeleton in motion, hopping around. Her friends from her old town in the picture on her nightstand are alive within the frame; they speak out to her. Coraline wakes up and is no longer experiencing the undead surroundings. It is also on this morning that we see Selick writing the rules of his dietetic world as we meet characters like Bobinsky — the pot-bellied, but otherwise inhumanly thin veteran circus performer — and Miss Spink and Miss Forcible — the lesbian couple of especially plump proportions who excel in Scottie (dog) taxidermy. Coraline’s new friends share whimsical information with her without trying to get to know her. It’s as if they already do.

The color palate of Coraline transcends pluralism with its blues, pinks, violets and oranges that combat the black and grey all within one Selick universe. Such a warmth of colors highlighting things like the garden is often confronted by the immense overcast of setting, making for a real visual treat.

Coraline travels to her parallel universe a second time. When we meet her “other” mother and father, we learn that despite their black button eyes that inspire a feeling of immense unpleasant creepy politeness, they are a part of Coraline’s ideal. However, it is Wybie’s black cat that begins to shake Coraline’s perception of comfort and understanding of her parallel parents. He warns her that things may not be as they seem. His admonishment is realized at once when terror strikes Coraline as her “other” mother asks Coraline to sew black buttons in place of her eyes in order to remain in “other” world.

“I don’t know what it is about stop motion. You can show children the original King Kong; they’re fascinated by it,” Selick says. “I don’t know why, it’s just as a kid everybody goes through a phase where they believe their dolly, their toys are living things, and it doesn’t take much to imagine them moving and coming to life. It’s almost as if stop-motion is always old-fashioned. It’s not new. It’s not modern. It feels like it’s from another time.”

“Coraline” has been a project between Selick and author Neil Gaiman since 2000. Now with its much-anticipated arrival, the viewing experience of “Coraline” is not from a tangible time or place but rather it is of the romantically macabre mind.

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