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Kids, you probably think that your parents are pretty lame, that your house is boring, that your life sucks. You just know there’s something better out there—moms and dads who are cool and will dedicate their days to adoring you and giving you all the cake you want. Go ahead, fantasize about it. But fair warning: Spend enough time in this Bizarro World, and you’re gonna end up with buttons sewn over your gouged-out eyes.
At least that’s the macabre message in Coraline, writer-director Henry Selick’s stop-motion adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s novella. So don’t let the animation fool you: The PG-rated Coraline may not exactly be Waltz With Bashir, but its degree of family-friendliness depends entirely on whether yours is the kind of clan that favors, say, cheery threats of abandonment over time-outs when it comes to disciplining the little ones. It’s a retro type of tough love, sure, but it didn’t do us any harm, did it? Can’t we laugh about it now…at least in therapy?
Gaiman’s grim fairy tale centers on Coraline Jones (Dakota Fanning), an only child who just moved with her writer parents into a giant old house. Her mother (Teri Hatcher) and father (John Hodgman) are both too distracted with work to spend much time nesting; their home remains barren, meals are slapped-together and unpalatable, and Coraline is crankily brushed off when she has a question or just wants some attention. While wandering the grounds one day, she does meet a boy named Wybie (Robert Bailey Jr.), but he’s kind of irritating and weird, and Coraline would almost prefer to pass the time counting her house’s doors and windows, a task Dad once assigned her so he could write in peace.
The busywork, though, leads Coraline to an exciting discovery: a tiny locked door that opens to a brick wall during the day but morphs into a Being John Malkovich–like portal at night. Tiny, twittering hummingbirds and dragonflies awaken Coraline when the rest of the house is asleep and guide her through a tunnel into her alternate life. Here, her mom is all dulcet coos and gourmet meals; her father is an effervescent one-man show as he jams with a player piano (a spectacular scene involving Selick’s circling “camera”) and later shows Coraline his Kool Aid–colored garden, which is full of tickling snapdragons and has been precisely planted to resemble Coraline when viewed from above. Coraline’s Other Mother and Other Father, as they call themselves, say they’ve been waiting for her to come home. And they have buttons for eyes.
Each night Coraline revisits her bliss; each morning she wakes with an “ugh” when she realizes she’s back in her dingy old room. Soon, though, her Other Parents tell her that she can live in this world permanently. She can even hang out with a new, improved Wybie, who’s now always smiling and utterly mute: “I thought you’d like him more if he talked a little less,” Other Mother says, a little creepily. “So I fixed it.” But if Coraline stays, those real eyes of hers have to go.
Until this point, Coraline is merely offbeat and wildly imaginative, particularly when sketching out real-world neighbors that include a mice-circus trainer (Ian McShane) who’s got a burly torso atop beanpole legs and twigs for a mustache and elderly former burlesque performers (Jennifer Saunders and Dawn French) who decorate their home with the stuffed carcasses of their many pet terriers and still boast bodacious figures. There’s a melancholy if ultimately hopeful subtext to the characters’ names, too: Wybie says he calls himself that because he questions why he was born; while Coraline was apparently so named because of her parents’ belief that ordinary names lead to ordinary expectations.
But then the film bursts into a totally freaky, mindbending nightmare that may frighten very young children but will surely entrance everyone else. Though Coraline has clear visual echoes of Selick’s The Nightmare Before Christmas—spinning heads, gloves with skeletal detail—it’s really unlike anything before it. A chilling highlight includes the scene in which Coraline’s Other Mother turns from Stepford-chilly to completely evil, shriveling to a flesh-covered skeleton that bears an unfortunate but undeniable resemblance to Courteney Cox.
Coraline’s technology is as remarkable as its story. It’s entirely handcrafted (as was The Nightmare Before Christmas) but was shot in stereoscopic 3D, and the result is gorgeous: Barring only a few instances of 3-D’s usual reach-out-and-touch-it effect, Coraline is more like 2-D+, its additional depth a result of the stop-motion process rather than an overpolishing of a high-definition sharpness. It’s a film so stuffed with extraordinary moments that viewers will want to watch it repeatedly to catch everything—that is, if the ghost children that appear in the final acts don’t spook them away for good.