The bracingly strange artist Henry Selick has carved out a fruitful, if fitful, career animating the warped imaginations of other, equally strange artists like Tim Burton (The Nightmare Before Christmas) and Roald Dahl (James and the Giant Peach), both of which Selick directed. The CalArts graduate’s lifelong experiments with stop-motion animation continue with his new, PG-rated horror movie for kids, adapted from a novel written by Neil Gaiman for his own daughters. In Coraline, a blue-haired tween (voiced by Dakota Fanning) freshly resettled in Oregon escapes her apparently boring new life and distracted parents through a bricked-up door into a parallel life with Other Parents more attentive and idealized but also more dangerous. Shot over 18 months at the Laika studios in Portland after two years in preproduction, this weirdly beautiful film is the first stop-motion ever to be photographed in 3-D. No doubt it’s also the first to feature snow made out of Super Glue and baking soda.
LA WEEKLY: What’s the reason for your stubborn attraction to stop-motion in the age of computer-generated imagery?
HENRY SELICK: I use stop-motion because I love its imperfections. You sense the hand of the artist, it crackles with energy. The mistakes you see are what we filmmakers love about it. I like to see the places animation can go, as in Waltz with Bashir. Personally, I’m attracted to fantasy, but I support people who take it elsewhere.
Neil Gaiman is almost as good a fit for you as Roald Dahl was. What attracted you to his book?
He’s an incredible writer. I like the mix of dark and light in this story. The darkness is true, as it is in all fairy tales. It’s like Alice in Wonderland, except that when she goes down the rabbit hole, she goes into a Grimm’s fairy tale, with people who have buttons for eyes. There’s also great humor, not cartoony but drier than that.
It seems to me that Coraline contains a critique of hyper-parenting. Her real-life parents are inattentive, married to their computers, but they end up being the ones who love her best, while her Other Mother, who’s over-attentive, turns out to be evil.
There was some pressure on me at the beginning to make Coraline’s parents nicer. But that made them false — if they’re so nice, why would she need to run away? In the book, there’s a coolness to the real mother, and she never changes. The parents are imperfect and they never learn lessons. That’s what I like. They disappoint Coraline, but she realizes what’s good about them.
I love the quote from the Other Mother, “Even the proudest spirit can be broken with love.”
The Other Mother is presenting an idealized version of parenting, and it’s a weapon, a controlling emotion.
How did you get away with a PG rating?
We made some adjustments for the MPAA. But there are lots of little edgy things in the movie. I hear concern about the scene where the cat bites off the head of a rat. But cats do bring the gift of an eviscerated mouse with its head off; kids know that. Kids like to be frightened, and it’s important for them to see that other children aren’t superheroes. I gave the script to my friend David Fincher and he said, “You’ve got to give her an UZI or a chain saw.”
You make horror movies for children.
We wanted to make Coraline go through real things and come out okay. That’s not new. In Disney, Pinocchio’s best friend gets turned into a donkey. The Queen in Snow White wants Snow White’s heart returned in a box. Showing Coraline beat a monster without weapons is a great thing. People are always telling me that boys won’t go to girls’ movies and vice versa. It’s not true.
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Harry Potter, for instance.
Yes, but it took a woman to write it.
Can you talk about the influences on your visual style, the thin legs and elongated necks?
If you’re drawing humans, it can be detrimental to be too naturalistic, which is like animating little corpses. I’ve always liked stylization and exaggeration, a variety of shapes with peaks and valleys. I was influenced by Ray Harryhausen and Lotte Reiniger, with her twitchy, cutout animation, which I happened to see at a very young age, but also by the Warner Bros. cartoons, Tom and Jerry, and of course Disney. And also by Fellini’s Giulietta of the Spirits and Kurosawa’s Ran. And by other American illustrators and painters.
Why did you add 3-D for Coraline?
I’ve had a long history with 3-D. Twenty years ago, I worked with the 3-D master Lenny Lipton on [a test for] the View-Master company. It’s still magical to me, because it shows the audience what we filmmakers see on the stages we set up. It enhances, enriches and deepens the textures and lights of the different worlds we create.
After Monkeybone, which didn’t do well with critics or the public, you said in an interview that you learned that you needed to “stay the hell away from live action and Hollywood,” and that you “shouldn’t challenge the audience too much unless you’re doing it on a really low budget.”
I’m meant to be an animation director. That world, and the culture of stop-motion, is where I want to live. It’s more my problem than Hollywood’s. I’m not attuned to Hollywood.