Imagination lives 240 times a second, in three dimensions, in Henry Selick’s Coraline. Selick’s film goes deeper with the theme’s presented in Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass, as well as consolidating the technique of everyone through Jan Svankmajer, The Brothers Quay, Tim Burton, Steven Spielberg and Wes Anderson (how’s that for a diverse group of influences?). Coraline is a remarkable film because it acknowledges that visual expression and thematic richness go hand in hand; the content and the form are inseparable. Coraline expands perception of our world by way of alternate ones; “Give us our eyes, and our souls will be free”, Coraline understands art’s power as a unifier and a vital part of the human experience.
Like Alice in Wonderland, and its infinite riffs in pop culture, Coraline concerns a young girl’s quest to escape her dreary existence through the most effective means, fantasy. However, Coraline doesn’t fatuously accept the concept of utopia as the answer to psychological transgression. Whereas Del Toro’s literal minded allegory Pan’s Labyrinth amounted merely to shallow wish-fulfillment, Coraline analyzes the psychological implications of a utopian fantasy world; the Orwellian dangers inherent in a society so blatantly manufactured. Coraline dares to ask profound questions on the nature of existence while simultaneously connecting these existential queries with childhood, the only time in life when this sense of mystery could come off as palpable as it does.
And in terms of of connecting with that central mystery of childhood, Coraline does it as effectively as anything in the filmography of Steven Spielberg. The brilliant, subtle use of 3D invites the observer to become a partner in a kind of cinematic dance, and the visual 'cues' highlight the psychological state of our main character. Her evolution from self absorbed, whiny child to enlightened, rational young adult is flawlessly conveyed by the film's visual language. In the beginning of the film she finds nothing excitable about her ho-hum existence, and thus the world is painted in grays and muted colors. Her first descent into the alternate world is so visually extravagant and colorfully eye-popping that it's literally overpowering--- however, the subversive creepiness of the other world is highlighted immediately, and slowly builds with each passing descent. By the end, the language has been inverted; the fantasy world is a nightmare, and suddenly you find yourself yearning for the real world, where (comparatively speaking) things make sense. Sure, you can't go play in the mud and eat cookies for dinner, but at least your mom doesn't turn into a giant spider and try to sew buttons into your eye socket.
Whether Coraline’s ‘other’ world is real or otherwise isn’t a central issue of the film, as it was with Pan’s Labyrinth; rather, in Coraline these two seemingly separate but concurrent universes are two sides of the same coin, opposing polarities of the id. Coraline charts the emotional growth of its titular character, and her rejection (and conquering) of her utopian dystopia is a reflection of the strong sense of moral values that the film conveys, as well as the high price it puts on individuality. She has the option of living in a world where her wants and needs are catered to, all she has to do is give up her eyes--- her windows to the world, the eyes through which she has garnered her unique perspective. Coraline, both the character and the film, puts a strong emphasis on the eyes being the key to our souls, the catalyst for understanding and illumination. The film's constant allusions to classic works of art (from The Birth of Venus to Starry Night) brilliantly underscore this point.
In addition to its artful recapitulation of traditional storytelling technique, Coraline displays what is easily the most effective use of the 3D process yet. Rather than having objects being thrown into the screen for the audience to relish in the simple pleasures of having shit thrown at them, Coraline’s use of 3D is never distracting or gimmicky; it effectively highlights the visual transcendence of the fantasy world, and the more morose nature of the real world. It is unquestionably the most inventive use of the process yet, an ingrained part of the way the story is told instead of an extraneous device to make the unappealing seem more appealing. Rather than tacking on the technique for a contrived sense of excitement, Coraline’s visual invention opens up its thematic expression.
Coraline avoids placating and cuts to a core emotional truth of childhood; the world we inhabit may not be perfect, but at least it’s real. Through the hardships experienced in the fantasy world, Coraline learns to appreciate and understand that while the world is not something that is going to cater to one's desires at every passing moment, it still beats the fraudulence of a manufactured society where individuality is suffocated. The film's brilliant final sequence highlights the maturity and new found appreciation of life Coraline experiences. After illustrating how nightmarish our dreams can be, the real world suddenly feels a lot more beautiful, warts and all.