Blue Filter: Henry Selick And The Charmingly Weird

Henry Selick

In our Blue Filter series, we are inviting our writers to reflect on the films that they have connected with through challenging or upsetting times, both during the COVID-19 pandemic and before. In the latest entry of the series, George Walker dives into the solace of director Henry Selick and his wonderfully eerie imagination, looking at how his films speak to the inner explorer in him.

At a base level, my love for films by Henry Selick develops from first seeing his adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s Coraline at the cinema. All the way back in 2009, I wanted to see the film with my mum by my side, as the trailer had already creeped me out beyond belief (the film is also getting a re-release in the US later this summer. The sharp and detailed animation, the expressive and eccentric characters, and the perpetually simmering undertones of suspicion and dread excited my creative and curious inner self. It was watching Coraline as a 22-year-old that made me understand why I loved it both then and now; a connection bound by nostalgia, an appreciation for the weird, and strong moral lessons.

As a filmmaker, Selick is unapologetic about telling stories that don’t neatly fit into the archetypal Disney-Pixar content oligopoly. They unsettle, they scare, and they entice. They do everything that a young mind is crying out for; to have ideas, explore different worlds, see; strange new creatures, and have emotions thrown at you in a way that entertains and educates in equal measure. After all, Selick embraces the archaic traditions of old wives’ tales and folklore that tell children stories of hidden worlds and spirits, admonishing a good scare, and teaching them to be mindful of their surroundings as they grow up and gain independence. This the legacy of Aesop’s Fables, the Brothers Grimm, Disney, and Roald Dahl. Never forget the downright weirdness of early Disney in the 1940s; the psychedelic and surrealist ‘pink elephants on parade’ sequence from Dumbo is enough to give anyone the willies. It is this wonderfully strange and unsettling drive that Selick embraces to the full.

Around four minutes into re-watching Coraline, I had an epiphany about why I am so drawn to this film. Coraline and her family move to a new secluded set of apartments in a rural area, as her parents develop their careers as gardening journalists. The first sight of the apartments and the natural environment that surrounds are both spellbinding and deflating. The so-called ‘Pink Palace’ apartments blend in with the drab colouring of the surrounding topography, as the garden and woodland that Coraline is exploring are filled with dark greys and pale whites.

As she stumbled up and down moss-covered rocks, using a stick as a dowsing rod to in search of excitement, I realised that watching her wander through these muddy banks and overhanging vegetation reminded me a lot of my own childhood. As an only child growing up in a village in North Yorkshire, there were countless wandering Sunday afternoons where I walked through never-ending forests and fields looking for excitement and fun. Me and my friends would scare ourselves silly walking through the woods late at night, mistaking marks on trees for the presence of scary spirits a la Blair Witch Project. It was about fun, exploration and the unknown. Like Coraline, I was bored. I wanted danger, excitement, and often to be somewhere else altogether.

Selick’s style in his other work is also undoubtedly equal parts fun and phantasmagorical. Take 1993’s The Nightmare Before Christmas. It depicts Halloweentown, a place where Halloween is never-ending, and its residents downwards look like creations David Cronenberg would be proud of. There’s the mayor with his ability to literally swap faces between glee and anger, a character called Oogie Boogie who tortures people in his lair and resembles a sack of bugs, and a menacing clown who speaks in the highest of pitches and can rip off his own face. While this isn’t typical children’s entertainment, Selick and the film’s original creative force Tim Burton craft a charming tale of realising who you are, what you’re good at, and the things you value most.

The crux of the story is that protagonist Jack Skellington wants to abandon Halloween, celebrate Christmas instead, and take Santa Claus’s place. He ultimately fails, and comes to realise the value in his everyday life, the place he lives, and the people that surround him. Sincere messages around staying true to one’s self, and realising your worth and purpose to the world are front and centre in Selick’s work; it’s just that the radically weird and superbly creative universes he creates to tell these stories, are often not the ones we have come to expect.

It’s these universes that for me transform a typical children’s film with instructive moral messaging, into one that creeps and crawls its way to the darkest recesses of your soul without ever denting it. The films of Henry Selick remind me of my childhood and my interest in the unknown, the designs of the characters and world are spellbinding, but most importantly afford a special type of escapism. They allow me to suspend reality, and wrap myself in a warm blanket of the creepy and weird when normal life is either too much, or not offering enough.

Words by George Walker

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