Screenplay by Henry Selick, based on the novel by Neil Gaiman
Directed by Henry Selick
Produced by Pandemonium/ Laika Entertainment
Running time: 100 minutes
So, What’s This About?
Coraline Jones (voiced by Dakota Fanning) relocates from Pontiac, Michigan to the overcast Ashland, Oregon. While her parents (Teri Hatcher, John Hodgman) write a gardening catalog, Coraline sets out to explore the Pink Palace Apartments, a 150-year old mansion that’s been rented out to three tenants. These include retired vaudevillians Miss Spink (Jennifer Saunders) and Miss Forcible (Dawn French) and a Russian acrobat named Mr. Bobinsky (Ian McShane). Coraline also meets the landlord’s grandson, Wyborne “Wybie” Lovat (Robert Bailey Jr.) whose great aunt disappeared in the house years ago. Wybie gives Coraline a doll that looks eerily like her.
Wakened at night by Mr. Bobinsky’s performing mice, Coraline follows them through a door to an alternate reality, where her “Other Mother” (Teri Hatcher again) offers Coraline everything she could possibly want: delicious food, nice clothes, a lavish room, wondrous gardens. She discovers a mangy black cat (Keith David) from home has the power of speech in this reality. Coraline’s Other Mother invites her to stay in this perfect world forever, if she’ll permit buttons to be sewn into her eyes. Trapped in a mirror when she refuses, Coraline meets the souls of other lost children and learns that her Other Mother is actually a creature who abducts and once she grows bored with them, devours children.
Who Made It?
Neil Gaiman — celebrated author of the DC Comics epic The Sandman and the novel Stardust — had his daughter to thank for planting the seeds of Coraline, written over a decade and published to great acclaim as a novella in 2002. Gaiman was a fan of Henry Selick, the stop-motion maestro behind The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993), and sent Selick a manuscript as early as 2000. Optioning the film rights for Selick was Bill Mechanic, former chairman of Fox and founder of the production company Pandemonium. Contractually prohibited from producing animated films by Disney — the studio where Mechanic had a deal — Coraline was initially developed as a live action feature, to no avail.
In May 2004, Selick accepted a job as supervising director with Vinton Studios, a Portland based animation company which found Coraline a little too dark for its tastes. But months later, Nike co-founder Phil Knight would move from an investor in Vinton Studios to buying the company outright and rebranding it as Laika Entertainment. Looking to make a move into feature films, Knight rolled the dice on Selick and Coraline with a production budget of between $60 and $70 million. The first stop-motion animated film shot in 3D, Coraline spent 18 months being meticulously filmed on 52 sets at Laika’s studio in Portland before opening to wide acclaim in February 2009.
How’d They Do It?
Neil Gaiman traced the origins of Coraline back to the unusual demand of a key demographic: his daughter. “It began in about 1989, 1990, somewhere around there. My daughter, Holly, would come home from kindergarten — she’d be about four or five years old — and she would climb on my lap because I would be sitting in my office writing and she would dictate stories and they were terrifying. They’d be about little girls coming home and finding out the evil witches were now impersonating their mothers. Normally the girls would then get locked in cellars and they would have to escape and try and find their real mother with the witches coming after them.”
Gaiman continued, “I thought I’ll go and find her some stories like this to read to her and nobody seemed to be writing any. I couldn’t find any so I thought, ‘I’ll write her one. I’ll write a story that Holly would like.’ And that was where it began. That really was the genesis. I sat down and I started writing Coraline, which was a name that I think I took from a typo. I’d been writing a letter to a friend called Caroline and I transposed.” Gaiman found additional inspiration from Victorian Era author Lucy Clifford, whose 1882 short story The New Mother concerned two misbehaving children whose mother is replaced by one with glass eyes and a wooden tail.
Gaiman revealed, “I finished the first draft nine years ago in 2000 and I gave it to my agent and said: ‘Please give this to Henry Selick,’ because I had seen The Nightmare Before Christmas and even though it was called Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas I was smart enough to understand that the main man was Henry Selick. I then saw James and the Giant Peach and thought Henry had something really interesting. Especially as a stop-motion director he was just beyond compare. He’s the best there is. I loved the fact that he seemed to understand that sometimes you can show sometimes bravery shines best in dark places.”
Published in 2002, Coraline was awarded that year’s Bram Stoker Award for Best Work for Young Readers, the 2003 Nebula Award for Best Novella and the 2003 Hugo Award for Best Novella. Selick took the property to producer Bill Mechanic, who’d founded Pandemonium after being forced out as chairman of 20th Century Fox, where Mechanic had championed Fight Club, X-Men and Ice Age. Working on an adaptation, Selick resisted developing the material as a live action film, feeling there had been too many talking critter movies and that bringing Gaiman’s dark faerie tale to life through animation might make it less disturbing for younger audiences. But Mechanic’s deal with Disney prohibited him from making animated features.
Selick recalled, “And Bill liked it, but for about two years we had to pretend it was a live action film. I even met with Michelle Pfeiffer, to be possibly in the role of the Mothers, but she didn’t really want to have any buttons on her eyes. And I said, ‘But that’s, kinda the point of the … ‘ Anyway, that was the early days. We kinda hit a dead end. We weren’t going to get to make the film. A scary film for children — it wasn’t going to happen.” Selick moved on to animate sea creatures for the Wes Anderson comedy The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004) and in May 2004, accepted an offer from Vinton Studios, the Portland based animation unit behind the California Raisins ad campaign and the Fox series The PJs.
Founded by stop-animation pioneer Will Vinton — who’d coined the term Claymation and supervised the stop-motion effects in Return To Oz (1985) — the studio was looking to land financing for animated features that might compete with Pixar. “They were growing, transforming. They had an idea for a short film, Moongirl, and they asked if I’d direct it, and flesh it out. And I said that I was only going to move up there from California if I could bring Coraline with me. And they said, ‘Sure, why not?’ So I moved up there, did this short for them, Moongirl, and then said, ‘Well, it’s time to do Coraline.’ And at that time, the guy in charge said, ‘Well, actually, it’s much too dark’, and what changed was, Travis Knight.”
Travis Knight is son of Phil Knight, co-founder of Nike. After a short-lived career as “Chilly Tee”, a Portland rapper in the early 1990s, Travis Knight found his niche as a stop-motion animator at Vinton Studios. After The PJs was canceled and advertising jobs dried up, his father invested in the studio. In September 2003, Phil Knight bought the company, naming Nike executive Dave Wahl CEO and hiring Selick as supervising animation director. Renaming the operation Laika Entertainment, Knight shifted the studio’s primary focus from commercials to feature films. One year later, it was announced that Laika would bankroll Coraline, with Henry Selick adapting a script and directing. Focus Features — the specialty film division of Universal Pictures — acquired worldwide distribution rights.
In adapting Gaiman’s novella, Selick revealed, “I added a character, this neighbor kid Wybie. I set it in the U.S., because I wasn’t as comfortable with British dialogue. And then, over the years that it took to get this thing off the ground, other elements of the story took on a life of their own. I guess the main thing is there’s a delicacy, a subtlety, that Neil can really exploit with his beautiful writing that can’t all get on the screen. You can go and describe the Other Mother and say that her teeth were just a tiny bit longer, her nails a tiny bit more red, but I had to go bigger and broader at times. I also had to dial back the darkness. I didn’t want to go to the darkest tones of the novel quite so soon. I wanted to go lighter and then descend into it.”
One concept that was floated was to open Coraline with computer-generated animation and transition into stop-motion when the story shifted into the parallel universe. Selick recalled, “It was a nice theory, we actually did a test, but putting the two side by side, it just didn’t mean anything, it didn’t have much to say, you know, crucial time we’re on the razor’s edge: which way do we go, CG or stop-motion? Travis Knight, who’s one of the lead animators, weighed in with his important vote and said, well, if he’s going to animate on one feature, he wanted to do stop-motion, so I owe him a huge debt. We went the right way. Travis had a lot to do with that.” Coraline commenced what became an 18-month shoot May 2006 at the Laika studio in Portland.
According to Selick, 90 percent of the film was done practical, without using CG imagery. “Coraline is about seven inches tall as a puppet. There’s an invisible line in her face that we’ve painted out, between her upper face and lower face. The animation of her face is done through replacement animation, just like Jack Skellington, Miss Spider in James and the Giant Peach, the old Pillsbury Doughboy. Martin Meunier — very talented artist/ fabrication person I’ve worked with — came up with a new system using rapid proto machines to build on handmade sculpts of her face and give her an ever greater range of expressiveness. Georgina Hayns — or George as we call her — head of puppet fabrication builds these puppets. The armature underneath metal skeleton was by Merri Cheney, who I’ve worked with for over 20 years.”
Critics generally loved the film. Tony Scott, The New York Times: “Like the best fantasy writers Mr. Gaiman does not draw too firm a boundary between the actual and the magical, allowing the two realms to shadow and influence each other. Mr. Selick, for his part, is so wantonly inventive and so psychologically astute that even Coraline’s dull domestic reality is tinted with enchantment.” Michael Phillips, The Chicago Tribune: “Coraline may not be for all tastes and it’s certainly not for all kids, given its macabre premise. But writer-director Henry Selick’s animated feature advances the stop-motion animation genre through that most heartening of attributes: quality. It pulls audiences into a meticulously detailed universe, familiar in many respects, wacked and menacing in many others.”
Opening February 2009 in the United States, Coraline earned $75.2 million domestically and added $46.3 million in theaters overseas. It also won the enthusiastic support of Neil Gaiman. “It’s what I hoped Henry would make, which is Henry’s film. It’s very much a film of my book and it hits all the beats of the book and it expands a little bit because it’s not a very big book. But he instilled it with Henry’s wonderful imagination and he doesn’t stop anything.” Gaiman added, “It’s so strange because I think adults have a lot more problems with this kind of story than children do. It’s true for the book. It’s always adults that say to me that they finish reading the book at three o’clock in the morning and go around the house turning on all the lights. I never get that from the kids.”
Should I Care?
Selick is an animation connoisseur and seems to understand that the state of the art only moves as far as animators are willing to challenge their audience. Earlier in his career, Selick was a storyboard artist for Disney and worked on Return To Oz, a dark, exquisitely made fable that critics disparaged for being too scary for kids(!) This as if Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Fantasia and Sleeping Beauty — to name a few — were a trip to McDonald’s. With Neil Gaiman’s novella as a road map, Henry Selick has crafted his finest work yet. Less amusing than The Nightmare Before Christmas, the absence of musical numbers allows Selick and his team to descend into the imagination and angst of a child more vividly than any American animated film I can recall with the exception of Disney’s Alice In Wonderland.
Gaiman’s source material — liberally reworked by Selick — is a handsomely crafted narrative; there’s not a single dopey character or glib reference to be found here. The script doesn’t call for any cheap scares, but like Return To Oz, is a perilous and potent trip to the dark side. I don’t have any funny glasses and can’t comment about the film’s 3D attributes, but there’s no question that the handcrafted, slightly wonky effect of stop-motion animation — whether used in Jason and the Argonauts (1963) or Corpse Bride (2005) — is a shot into the nerve center of the brain. Bruno Coulais composed a delightfully spooky score, while alt rock kings They Might Be Giants — who composed four demos, only one of which Selick ended up being able to use — contribute a cool song.
Where’d You Get All of This?
“Neil Gaiman Exclusive Interview — Coraline” By Matt Goldberg. Collider.com, 26 January 2009
“Coraline director Henry Selick on how not to mess up Neil Gaiman” By Ian Spelling. SciFi Wire, 26 January 2009
“Laika hangs dreams on Coraline” By Amy Reifenrath. Oregon Live, 4 February 2009
“Exclusive: Henry Selick on Coraline” By Michael Leader. Den of Geek, 7 May 2009
“Neil Gaiman Interview, Coraline” By Sheila Roberts. MoviesOnline
Coraline. DVD audio commentary featuring Henry Selick & Bruno Coulais. Universal Home Entertainment (2009)