Reviewed By David Cornelius
Posted 02/28/09 02:38:20

"Fantastic, in more ways than one."
4 stars (Worth A Look)

I smiled all the way through “Coraline,” even through the scary parts. And there are many scary parts here, as my daughter will easily attest. Filmmaker Henry Selick and writer Neil Gaiman, whose novella Selick adapts, refuse to go easy around the scary parts, and good for them. Gaiman’s book and Selick’s screenplay channel the most effective fears of youth in building a vibrant, imaginative, and, above all, unapologetically dark children’s horror fantasy.

The story is familiar, almost comfortably so; viewers may recognize hints of “Labyrinth,” “The Watcher in the Woods,” “The Spiderwick Chronicles,” even “Alice in Wonderland” and “The Wizard of Oz.” Coraline Jones (voiced by Dakota Fanning), overlooked by her workaholic parents (Teri Hatcher and John Hodgman), is not taking well to a recent move to a remote apartment house in the middle of nowhere. She misses her old friends, her old life. Then she stumbles upon a tiny door, hidden away in a forgotten room, pasted over with aging wallpaper. Sometimes the door opens to reveal nothing but a wall of bricks. But other times. Ah, other times! It reveals a portal to the “Other World,” a mirror image of her home, but everything is perfect, so much so that you’ll probably be willing to overlook the particularly creepy buttons that have replaced everyone’s eyes. Is the Other World a dream, and if not, what surprises await Coraline there?

“Coraline” is the new feature from stop-motion animation genius Selick, who previously granted us the goth delights “The Nightmare Before Christmas” and “James and the Giant Peach.” And perhaps no live-action - or even computer animated - work could capture the nightmarish otherworldliness of Gaiman’s story. Even Coraline’s real world feels like a dream, all dreary grays and sharp loneiness, punctuated only by the intrusion of colorful neighbors like the Russian acrobat (Ian McShane) and the aging showgirls (Jennifer Saunders and Dawn French).

Then comes the Other World, and its explosion of invention. Children’s fantasies require a sense of visual madness, but so few offer it. “Coraline” does, with visual gifts tucked away in every corner of every frame. Young viewers will squirm and cover their eyes at the dangers they find, but when they grow a little older, and they’ve come to appreciate stop-motion as an art form, they’ll be delighted in their rediscovery.

Consider the chore at hand for Selick and his crew of designers. The Other World is a place that must seem wonderfully inviting and bone-chillingly eerie, often at the same time. Coraline’s initial visits offer a playful mood - check out Other Father’s piano, complete with automated hands and a song by They Might Be Giants - but even here, we can tell something’s not quite right, like when we first met Gene Wilder as Willy Wonka and new someone that devilish can’t be all good. Later in the film, everything nice falls away, revealing a darker layer, one that was there all along, hidden among the brightly colored happiness.

“Coraline” is the first movie of its kind to be shot in 3D. (His “Nightmare Before Christmas,” successfully re-released in 3D a couple years back, was retrofitted for the process.) What Selick does with the gimmick isn’t just clever, it’s vital to the film’s success: he refuses to make 3D the point of the film, aiming not for sharp things jabbed our way but instead a sense of depth that draws us deeper and deeper into Coraline’s two worlds. Fans of 3D may walk away slightly underwhelmed by the experience, but it’s really a better choice, as it gives the 3D stunt a genuine purpose. Plus, it ensures the movie will still work splendidly in two dimensions, a thought often overlooked by some directors.

A final thought. Is “Coraline” too scary for kids? Some kids, yes. Others, not at all. Parents will know if their kid counts in which crowd. More important to note is how well the film fits in with that grand tradition of intelligent family fare, fantasy tales of danger and delight that invite children to play with their nightmares for a while. There’s a real sinister streak throughout “Coraline,” but it’s the sort of sinister kids will enjoy.

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