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Dark Coraline Too Nightmarish for Kids

  • Jeffrey Huston Contributing Writer
  • Updated Jul 24, 2009
Dark <i>Coraline</i> Too Nightmarish for Kids

DVD Release Date:  July 21, 2009
Theatrical Release Date:  February 6, 2009
Rating:  PG (for thematic elements, scary images, some language and suggestive humor)
Genre:  Fantasy
Run Time:  100 min
Director:  Henry Selick
Voices of:  Dakota Fanning, Teri Hatcher, Ian McShane, John Hodgman, Keith David, Robert Bailey Jr., Jennifer Saunders and Dawn French

Coraline poses an unfortunate conundrum.  Its cinematic qualities are spectacular and many; its themes important and biblically sound.  Nevertheless, its content and tone—which are nightmarish, among other things—make it inaccessible for many kids (or, at least, would cause concern for the average Christian parent).

That two-sided quality is, in a sense, fitting as that is the very nature of this story.  Based on Neil Gaiman’s novella, Coraline comes to life in the stop-animation universe of Henry Selick (director of previous stop-motion classics like The Nightmare Before Christmas, James and the Giant Peach, and others).  It is the story of a girl whose family has relocated to rural Oregon in an old house/triplex called “Pink Palace Apartments” that rests on a hill.  She misses her friends; her parents—both writers—are caught up in their work, and Coraline feels neglected and alone.  She does not like her world.

A local boy named Wybie—too energetic for Coraline’s tastes—makes various attempts at friendship, one of which is the gift of an old burlap doll with black-button eyes.  It belongs to his grandmother, a woman who once lived in the Pink Palace and warns her grandson to never go there.  Wybie thinks Coraline will appreciate the doll because, eerily, it resembles her.  Little does he know what Coraline soon discovers:  the doll is mystically connected to a parallel world where everything is the same, but better.  The surroundings are beautiful, the atmosphere magical, and her parents loving.

Well, her “other” parents.  Referring to themselves as “Other Mother” and “Other Father”, they are better-looking and acting versions of mom and dad with one unsettling distinction:  they have black-button eyes, just like the doll Coraline was given.  This unsettling mutation is tempered (even forgotten) in the wave of love and generosity they extend.  They prepare wonderful meals, play beautiful music, and the Other Father has even made a colorful, vivid garden in Coraline’s honor.  They promise her that this world, this life, can be hers forever under one simple condition: she allows them to sew black-button eyes over her own so that she may become like them.  A small price to pay for a perfect life, no?

Coraline comes to learn what we already suspect: things—and her Other Parents—are not as wonderful as they seem.  Their true natures are, in fact, sinister.  They are evil spirits appearing as angels.  And to its credit, this revelation is where the thematic power of Gaiman’s story is found.  Though not intentionally, it serves as a perfect parable about Temptation as we understand it biblically. 

We wish for what we don’t have, dream of idealistic illusions, and before we know it The Tempter is offering us (or so it seems) what we long for.  But these temptations will be our ruin, not our salvation, the cost of which is our very souls—and the realization of that brings maturity through new perspective.  We now see things we once hated in the light of truth, seeing past the imperfections of people and circumstances that once clouded our view of their real value and love.

The style and tone—though dark, creepy, and occasionally disturbing—actually reinforces the power of the narrative.  It’s not nightmarish simply because the creators have gothic tastes; it helps reveal the moral.  It’s also absolutely stunning, a real work of art.  The real-life stop-animation is, in itself, monumental.  We, as viewers, can only begin to appreciate the scope of its achievement—especially when you consider that everything you see is practical and physical, not animated or created through visual effects.

What’s unfortunate, however, is a brief scene that like so many Hollywood productions takes content too far, making a film that most parents may otherwise deem “worth the risk” essentially off-limits.  Two of Coraline’s neighbors are former burlesque dancers, a fact alluded to in fairly innocuous ways.  Their “other” counterparts, however, perform a circus stage show in which one barely has anything on.  Granted, she’s older and overweight so it’s not a sexually alluring image (it’s meant for comic effect), but the fact that she only wears large stylized nipple covers, a g-string and nothing else is likely showing too much skin for most parents—even if it’s just an animated model.

That brief content, unfortunately, may ruin what would otherwise be a thrilling theatrical experience, especially considering that many venues will be presenting it in “Real 3-D” technology—and it’s the best 3-D I’ve seen.  Absolutely no “ghost” imaging; this is a sharp, seamless 3-D effect that adds another vibrant layer to an already eye-popping presentation.

The cast of voices is also superb, providing legitimate characterizations rather than merely high-energy line reads.  Dakota Fanning gives Coraline spirit and spunk, Ian McShane relishes the thick Russian accent of an aging acrobat, the deep bass of Keith David imbues the mysterious black cat, and Desperate HousewivesTeri Hatcher is the real standout as the Mother/Other Mother, ranging perfectly from maternal to terrifying.

Coraline is a feat of imagination—an absolute triumph, really—and a morality tale deserving of the arduous and endless creativity applied.  It is enchanting in its own peculiar way.  Yet while its qualities outweigh its concerns, they don’t reduce them.  I wouldn’t discount it out-of-hand and would even argue it earns the opportunity to be given a chance, but in doing so the full meaning of PG—Parental Guidance—should definitely be heeded.


  • Drugs/Alcohol:  None. 
  • Language/Profanity:  Very mild by most standards, with no specific profanities used.  The expression “Oh God” is used once.  Coraline uses the phrase “wuss puss” in a derogatory fashion a few times—in a way that might be catchy to young kids—but eventually apologizes for it.
  • Sex/Nudity:  Two older women are former burlesque dancers, but these facts are alluded to without great detail.  In the Other World, one of these older/overweight women barely has any clothes on in one sequence, only wearing ornate nipple covers and a g-string.  Not sexual but still “near nudity” even if just a figurine.
  • Violence/Other:  While “magic” is never directly used, supernatural powers are used, often with evil intentions.  Also, animals and inanimate objects talk in the “other world”, furthering the “magical” atmosphere.  In the normal world, the older ladies and one point “read tea leaves”, predicting danger.  Slimy bugs are eaten by the villain.  Some burlap dolls are mutilated or burned.  “Other Mom” transforms into a metallic spider that is scary; she pursues Coraline, including capturing her in a web, and those events can be intense.  Ghosts of previous victims—kids who were captured and chained-up by the villain—appear a few times, and we learn how their souls were slowly sucked out of their bodies.  Overall, the film is gloomy and creepy in tone (like a Tim Burton movie) and may be scary to many children.

Jeffrey Huston is a film director, writer and producer at Steelehouse Productions in Tulsa, Okla.  He is also cohost of the "Steelehouse Podcast,” along with Steelehouse Executive Creative Mark Steele, where each week they discuss God in pop culture. 

To listen to the weekly podcast, please visit or click here.  You can also subscribe to the "Steelehouse Podcast” through iTunes.