I tricked them again," says American film's premier puppeteer, Henry Selick. He knows that Coraline may be the crowning achievement of his thoroughly idiosyncratic list of credits, including The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993).
Selick's Roald Dahl adaptation, James and the Giant Peach (1996), came out one year before Pixar's Toy Story popped the eyes of audiences, critics and studio executives, who were too quick to predict the death of traditional cartoons.
Yet Selick has persevered to bring a type of animation rooted in antique theater - stop-motion or puppet animation - into the 21st century. His movies rely on artisans making physical models of characters and sets, then altering them frame by frame for maximum expressiveness and movement.
Congratulate Selick over the phone on bringing his painstaking craftsmanship into today's world and he's quick to point out that in one recent movie season (fall 2005), the great British stop-motion animator Nick Park made Wallace & Gromit in the Curse of the Were-Rabbit and Tim Burton made Corpse Bride . Burton's film was blissfully entertaining and Park's was a comic masterpiece, yet no one in Hollywood started clamoring for more stop-motion. In fact, since each grossed less than giant computer-animated hits, they made executives believe that the audience for stop-motion had dried up.
But Selick says, "When we finally got to the point where all animation was CG [computer graphics], stop-motion started to look fresh again. What's old becomes new."
When Selick adds digital filming and 3-D to the process in Coraline, he creates a universe as pictorially and emotionally complete as any computer animation, but with none of the tired mimicry and hyper-realism that afflicts a lot of non-Pixar CG.
The look of Coraline is out-of-this-world, and it's out-of-this-world for a purpose. The script Selick has written from Neil Gaiman's young-adult novel is about a girl who finds a passage between a home with her distracted mother and father to one where her self-proclaimed "Other Mother" and "Other Father" dote on her and shower her with surprises. The "Other World," at first, presents home-sweet-home as a comic Shangri-La - and the comedy grows darker as the movie goes along. With nothing to do before her school year starts, Coraline drifts deeper into the clutches of the Other World until the film becomes The Nightmare Before Labor Day. It's a movie about a child learning not to let loneliness get the better of her. It's also about parents learning that they should befriend as well as discipline their child.
Coraline came Selick's way because Gaiman went to see Nightmare Before Christmas while he was writing the book. Gaiman loved Selick's handiwork. Around the turn of the century, Gaiman asked his agent to send Selick a copy of the not-yet-published manuscript. "Within five pages I was drawn in, and halfway through this short novel, I could already see the movie."
A parent of two boys, George, 10, and Harry, 17, Selick says, "I absolutely believe kids like to be scared and enjoy cautionary tales where the filmmaker doesn't pull any punches." (In fact, George supplies the voice of a ghost child and Harry does the same for one of Coraline's junior high friends.)
"I don't believe in the safe cocoon that somehow American animation continues to have to live in, and I want to do my part to push against it. You don't get that in the work of Hiyao Miyazaki (Howl's Moving Castle) or in [the Oscar-nominated Israeli cartoon feature] Waltz With Bashir. Even with children at the center, you can go to life-or-death extremes."
Yet Selick doesn't strain to be macabre, bizarre or flashy. He serves and expands the concepts within the book. The movie's most haunting plot device and image is a puppet that resembles Coraline except for its button eyes - which are just like the button eyes on the Other Parents and Other Neighbors. And that's a Selick touch.
For a movie about a girl caught in an increasingly outlandish alternate world, Selick thinks any director would want a medium that could make the bizarre seem real. "When you watch stop-motion you get a visceral reaction because you can sense it's made from materials that are real. 3-D enhances that gut feeling."
3-D was also his visual equivalent "of going from black and white to color when Dorothy enters Oz. What could I use to enhance that experience of Coraline going from her ordinary life to this extraordinary other life? 3-D was the ticket. I wanted to pull audiences into this Other World as Coraline herself is drawn into this Other World."
Selick knew 3-D could help him make the story's states of feeling tangible. He designed the sets in Coraline's real world from a claustrophobic perspective. "The little kitchen where she's having her gloppy meal with Mom and Dad - it's only about a foot deep!" If the same spot in the Other World seems "a deeper, richer space, with more freedom," it's because "it's built to be 5 or 6 feet deep." Avoiding any "in-your-face, crazy effects," Selick gets viewers to sigh with relief and think, in his words, "Hey, it feels better here." (And it does, until Coraline senses what lies beneath the surface.)
So it's as a showman and an artist that Selick says, "If anyone's going to see this movie, you got to go see it in 3-D, and see it now. In three weeks, the Jonas Brothers will own all the 3-D theaters in the world."