‘Nightmare Before Christmas’ Director Applies Spooky 3-D Stop-Motion Magic To ‘Coraline’

Henry Selick takes on Neil Gaiman's story of a young girl who discovers an eerie parallel universe.

BEVERLY HILLS, California — What happens when you combine the director of “The Nightmare Before Christmas” with the acclaimed writer of such beloved graphic novels as “The Sandman” and “Stardust”? The world will find out when “Coraline” hits theaters in February — and judging by some early, dazzling footage screened recently for MTV News, you’ll want to keep a button-eye open for its release.

“I believe that Halloween exists because kids like to scare themselves, and they like to be scared,” director Henry Selick said, moments after showing us roughly 20 minutes of far-out, fantasy-fueled footage from his first all-stop-motion animation film since “Nightmare.” “We don’t want to scare them with a movie like this. But there is a fine line. They like something jumping out of the shadows. Coraline has to defeat evil, but the evil has to be big; it has to be real.”

Judging by what we saw: Mission accomplished. Based on a beloved novella by graphic novelist/ screenwriter Neil Gaiman , the flick tells the story of a young girl (voiced by Dakota Fanning) who finds a secret door in her home that leads to a parallel reality where life seems more magical, and her parents seem more loving. If she wants to stay there permanently, however, Coraline will have to pluck out her own eyes and replace them with oversized shirt buttons.

“It’s very much like the earliest Disney films — the darks are very dark [but balanced] against humor, light and beauty,” Selick explained, pointing to such quirky characters as pot-bellied Russian circus performer Mr. Bobinski (Ian McShane), eccentric old ladies Miss Forcible (Jennifer Saunders) and Miss Spink (Dawn French), and Coraline’s talking feline mentor the Cat (Keith David). “Coraline is a kid who is self-centered and lonely, no one pays attention, and she hates her new house. She becomes someone else; she has to rescue her parents. She sees ghost children who’ve been imprisoned there forever, and she sets them free.”

“Nightmare Before Christmas” remains a juggernaut 15 years after its premiere, as evidenced by all the screenings, costumes and decorations that abound every October. But those memories of Jack Skellington haunt Selick with an obvious question: Does “Coraline” have what it takes to similarly become a classic?

“I’d known Tim [Burton] going back to CalArts,” Selick recalled of his art-school days. “He was able to get that project going, and at that point, we were fearless. We didn’t know a lot, but we just saw it as an opportunity. … Now, [we] know how to do more things, but have the same freedom that we had with ‘Nightmare’ to really push it.”

That “push” includes filming the movie in stereoscopic 3-D — a process that had us donning thick glasses so we could be immersed in a world where Forcible and Spink swing on a trapeze off the screen and into your lap, and Coraline’s evil fake mother (voiced by Teri Hatcher) grows straight at you while revealing her true, monstrous identity.

“You can really see our puppets and how beautifully made they are,” Selick said, describing his tedious but tender process. “I wanted to be able to go in on close-ups and not have it fall apart; not have it feel like [the characters were] clunky, crudely made things. So, the mittens that Coraline is given as a gift are hand-knitted; the characters’ sweaters are hand-knitted. There’s a lot of attention to the hair; we had a wigmaker who worked in miniatures.”

Now, Selick will return to the darkness of his editing bay to put the finishing touches on a film that he hopes will capture the imaginations of multiple generations of kids and adults, just like “Nightmare” has.

“We’re finishing off the visual effects,” he said, giving us a status update. “There’s a bunch of shots we’re finishing, and then [we'll add] all the music that has just finished being recorded. We’ll start mixing in, like, three weeks.”

Don’t miss our Halloween Week features on “The Unborn” and Sam Raimi’s “Drag Me to Hell” ! And come back here all week for exclusive sneak peeks of the new “Friday the 13th” movie and other upcoming frightening flicks.

Check out everything we’ve got on “Coraline.”

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