Coraline is celebrated for many things: its gorgeous animation, its beautiful soundtrack, its fantastic voice acting. But there’s a major aspect of Henry Selick’s film that isn’t talked about as often: the fact that it’s a brilliant horror film for children. Coraline examines themes and ideas that’ll shake any child to their core. Even if you’re not a kid, this movie is a scary masterpiece.
Laika has quietly become one of the best names in animation. Their mastery of stop-motion, paired with creepy plots and kooky characters, have allowed them to carve out a niche spot in the crowded industry while other studios like Pixar and DreamWorks duke it out. Simply put, the crew at Laika are already in a class of their own. But Coraline stands out because it not only showcases their artistic abilities but also their willingness to make something truly, truly spooky.
What makes a horror movie? First and foremost, it needs scares. But what is scary? The answer is subjective, different for me and for you. A film can rely on the old go-tos – like a ghost jumping out at the screen or musical cues – to frighten the audience but it’s always more effective to go deeper. Coraline, even though it’s a kids film, goes much deeper. Thanks to the script and the source material by Neil Gaiman, the movie delves into issues that are always in the back of the mind of children as well as many adults. Things like abandonment, loss of family and the inability to fix your mistakes. These are fears much more dangerous and chilling than a masked boogeyman.
Family is very important in Coraline. The titular character moves from Michigan to the rainy, lonely hills of Oregon, leaving all her friends behind. She’s stuck with her workaholic parents, who are more interested in working and taking care of their new home than making sure their daughter adjusts well. This doesn’t sit well with Coraline and she wishes she had a different family. This is such a universal feeling; what kid hasn’t huffed and puffed and angrily stated they wanted an altered life? The audience immediately connects to this, especially a younger audience.
Then things get very, very dark for Coraline because she gets exactly what she wished for. She is granted a new mother and father. At first things are great, she’s happy as a clam. Slowly but surely things come apart and she learns to be careful what you wish for. Yet that realization might come too little, too late. She might have forever lost her family and is stuck in a nightmare world with no escape, all because of her own selfishness.
This is some scary stuff and it’s even scarier because the audience it’s playing to. It’s animated film essentially made for kids and it’s confronting thoughts and fears they grapple with often. It’s playing in their field and dealing with chilling thoughts that aren’t often addressed in animated features. The movie isn’t messing around, it isn’t gentle and it isn’t subtle. It’s not enough for Coraline to sweetly explain you should be thankful for your friends and family, the picture insists on showing you how utterly hopeless and suffocatingly scary things can get. Not only is the Other Mother unsettling and haunting, she’s literally a spider who replace children’s eyes with buttons. If that doesn’t drive the message home, nothing will.
It’s a dark film, visually and thematically. Ghost children, sewn mouths, spider women – these are images that would be haunting in an adult film, let alone a movie primarily aimed at children. Unlike other kids fare, the movie is also comfortable with the slow burn, gradually ratcheting up the fear from just unsettling to out-and-out scary. Like a thread pulled from a sweater, the movie unravels at an even pace and becomes darker and scarier with each passing scene. You know where it’s heading, you have a feeling how bad it’ll eventually get. That makes it even more frightening.
Coraline doesn’t rely on silly jokes and playful music. There are funny moments but there isn’t a bumbling animal sidekick (though there is a talking cat!) or too much physical shtick. The movie trusts its audience enough to let the story unfold naturally without typical animated fodder. The score, by the incomparable Bruno Coulais, is both beautiful and haunting and played sparingly. The movie features a lot of awfully quiet scenes, making the sound of rainfall or footsteps even louder. These are even more features that set the film apart in a sea of endlessly loud and obnoxious children’s films.
This movie is made like a horror film, because it is. Yes, it’s created for young viewers but it plays by the rules of horror so well. The fears it examines along with the disturbing visuals and upsetting story come together to create a truly frightening experience. It’s one that every young scary movie fan should watch because they’ll relate to it so well. But older horror aficionados should re-watch Coraline because it’s a prime example of the genre. It just happens to be animated.