I haven’t done one of these in a while. Fortunately, I had to write a movie review as a school assignment. What follows is a modified version of that essay. Let’s get right to it!
One of my primary goals as an artist is to become the preeminent figure of a literary movement. Salvador Dali is the first thing most people think of when they hear the word “surrealism,” and Alfred Hitchcock is the go-to example of a great director of thriller films. However, I’ve discovered a genre of storytelling that doesn’t seem to have been recognized or categorized yet. It is for this reason that I have decided to describe and label this genre, which I’ve christened “Neon Evangelism,” and analyze a work I find to be a superb example and introduction to it: the Henry Selick stop-motion animated film Coraline.
I’ve decided to name the genre “Neon Evangelism” in honor of the anime Neon Genesis Evangelion, which is a typical and famous entry of this framework. I also think the name fits, as it encapsulates the key points of the genre quite well; namely, that the work has a bright and/or inviting outside appearance that masks a more somber, cerebral message that the author is deliberately preaching for the audience.
Neon Evangelism is a relatively new genre, though it’s been around since at least the mid-twentieth century. However, the closest the genre has come to being recognized is the category of “Genre Deconstruction,” which the website TV Tropes describes as “a work that plays the central clichés and tropes of a genre completely straight to sweep away old ideas and make way for the new ones.” However, this definition doesn’t completely describe exactly what Neon Evangelism is. This is because it only describes one of the four core aspects, the other three being:
- A metaphorical supernatural entity that represents the flaws or fears of the protagonist(s) and the audience
- A central message that the author intends to convey through the deconstruction of the clichés in order to deepen the overall experience
- An initially pleasant or inviting appearance designed to draw in typical fans of the genre the work deconstructs (usually otherwise known as “Surprise Creepy“)
Some examples of works that fit all these criterion include, along with the aforementioned Evangelion and Coraline, the video games Spec Ops: the Line, Drakengard, and Undertale; the anime Madoka Magica, Elfen Lied, and Digimon Tamers; the graphic novel Watchmen; and the literary pieces The Graveyard Book (another children’s novel by Neil Gaiman) and A Song of Ice and Fire. These works come from a wide variety of genre traditions, though they all fit within the pattern described in the above three points. This, in addition to the fact that all of them are much grimmer and more horrific than their initial appearances or premises would suggest, suggests that Neon Evangelization is best described as a splinter genre of Dramatic Tragedy and Horror (especially Lovecraftian Horror).
Coraline, based on the children’s novella of the same name by Neil Gaiman, is an approachable example of Neon Evangelism that is a suitable introduction to those who are uninitiated to the genre. It opens with the titular protagonist, Coraline Jones (Dakota Fanning), moving with her neglectful parents into an old Victorian house somewhere in the dreary New England area of the northeastern United States. There, she encounters some of her neighbors, who are all either as apathetic as her parents, or eccentric to the point that they seem insane. During her frustrated, bored explorations of her new home, Coraline enters a small door in the wall of her house’s living room, which transports her to the “Other World.”
The “Other World” is much like the one that Coraline knows, except that the colors are brighter, the food tastes better, and her parents are doting and attentive. She also finds that her “Other Family” has a magical garden, a toy box full of living wooden creatures, and a bedroom decorated with her favorite colors. However, all of the inhabitants of the “Other World” have buttons instead of eyes, which foreshadows its sinister true nature: that it is a trap intended to lure children into the clutches of a witch known as the Beldam (Teri Hatcher), who claims to be their “Other Mother” as part of her ruse to eventually ensnare and devour them. The rest of the film has us observe Coraline as she attempts to escape the Beldam’s grasp before her sinister plan can come to fruition.
Coraline was produced by many of the same animators (as well as the same director) that were involved in The Nightmare Before Christmas (which itself is a Neon Evangelization of How the Grinch Stole Christmas), and it shows; Coraline has some of the best stop motion animation to be found anywhere. It’s difficult to believe at times that the character’s emotive faces aren’t a result of computer-generated imagery, despite the fact that almost every element was laboriously and physically crafted by hand.
One of the more remarkable scenes is “The Mouse Circus,” which features a hundred little mice dolls performing a mesmerizing dance to beautifully orchestrated march music. The audience can’t help but stare with as much awe as Coraline does at it; especially when a tracking shot follows the lead mouse as it rolls a tiny circus-ball down a pyramid. This sequence is so seamless that we are again forced to remind ourselves that all of it is practical and real.
The voice acting is sublime; the Beldam’s tone is simultaneously motherly and menacing, which perfectly encapsulates her twisted nature. Meanwhile, Coraline is relatably rebellious yet endearing, and the voice of her cat companion (Keith David) is comfortingly smooth. The score is haunting, which is vital to create the atmosphere of any horror film. It all comes together to paint a mesmerizing retelling of the typical Alice in Wonderland storyline. However, in its deconstruction of the “Down the Rabbit Hole” genre, Coraline evokes an even older and more ubiquitous tale: that of Hansel and Gretel, along with its cannibalistic villainess and cautious message against blindly trusting strangers. In this way, Coraline can be considered a modern update to that classic fairy tale.
Coraline is remarkable not just because it is a spellbinding film; it is also a superb example of using fantasy to augment the flaws of reality. The Beldam and the “Other World” are Coraline’s deepest desires brought to life; they are the attentive mother and exciting world she’d always wished for. However, it is easy to see the similarities they also share with real-world child abductors and the tactics they employ. Because of its fantastical shell, what might have been too harsh and depressing a pill to swallow becomes a fairy tale that children and adults alike can appreciate.