Based on the 2002 children’s book by Neil Gaiman, and adapted and directed by Henry Selick — who also helmed The Nightmare Before Christmas, a movie many people erroneously credit to Tim Burton — Coraline is a multi-dimensional show-stopper, the first stop-motion animated feature conceived and photographed in stereoscopic 3-D. If last summer’s Wall▪E pushed the envelope for kid-pitched big screen fare, underscoring the fact that animation is an evolving medium and not just a genre unto itself, Coraline only further highlights that point: this is a delightfully engaging curio, an idiosyncratic adventure tale about learning to appreciate one’s circumstances.
The story centers on 11-year-old Coraline Jones (voiced by Dakota Fanning), who’s just relocated to rainy Oregon with her parents (voiced by Teri Hatcher and John Hodgman), writers who have little time for her. Feisty and curious, she checks in on her much older neighbors — a pair of eccentric washed-up actresses and a Russian trapeze artist — and even endures the chatterbox company of a local boy close to her age, Wybie (voiced by Robert Bailey, Jr.).
Mainly though, Coraline is bored. Stuck indoors, she uncovers a small, secret door wallpapered over (above). Later, venturing through an eerie passageway, she discovers an alternate version of her existence — a parallel reality where everything is similar to her real life, except much better. The adults, including her solicitous, button-eyed “Other Mother” (also voiced by Hatcher), are fun and welcoming, the colors all brighter, and meals come in super-sized portions, with plenty of dessert. Coraline begins to think that this other world might be where she belongs. But when her wondrously off-kilter, fantastical visits turn dangerous and “Other Mother” schemes to keep her there, Coraline musters all of her resourcefulness and determination in an effort to save herself and her family.
The care with which Coraline is rendered offers up all sorts of surface-thrill visual seductions — dust on glass surfaces, or the swirl of fog dissipating underfoot — and reflects more than just the ornately designed backgrounds of many animated films. With its spindly forms and sometimes ironic and macabre touches, there are echoes of The Nightmare Before Christmas, to be sure, as well as narrative parallels to Beetlejuice — a young girl unhappy in her big new home, connected to the spirit world, it turns out.
Mostly, though, Coraline is its own shiny new thing. The down-the-rabbit-hole quality of its story (yes, there’s a talking cat, voiced by Keith David) is a much better natural match for 3-D technology than the yawning conventionality of some previous efforts, like last year’s Fly Me to the Moon. That said, Coraline also never desperately leans on the 3-D for cheap affect; it’s merely a component of its storytelling. The film also benefits from some great vocal performances. A lot of animated movies plug in celebrity voices without much thought or care for overall fit, but Fanning is pitch-perfect as Coraline — you get a sense of the exasperation that fuels her character — and the rest of the cast is a similarly good fit.
While the narrative takes care to root Coraline’s dilemma in a very concrete manner — meaning there’s an actual story to explain the parallel dimension, a loose ghost story template — the film is in essence about awakened imagination, and also the minor-chord adolescent trauma (usually discovered by children a bit younger than Coraline) of discovering that one’s parents have lives outside of your own. Probably no talking cats, though. (Laika/Focus Features, PG, 100 minutes)