Dark, magical and endlessly inventive, Coraline is the latest stop-motion animated marvel from Henry Selick, whose Nightmare Before Christmas and James and the Giant Peach are the gold standards for the style.
Where most of today's animated films are like video games — snappy, slick computer-assisted/photo-realistic wonders designed for the ADHD set — Selick is playing with toy trains, telling quiet, funny and sometimes disturbing tales for kids using dolls, hand-built miniature sets and great voice actors. There's a little digital effect here and there. But Selick's movies are best in their unmatched tactile sense of reality, and shooting it in 3-D only heightens that.
Coraline, based on a story by comic book and screenplay writer Neil Gaiman (Stardust), is about a girl who looks to be about 11, an only child who has moved to a remote boarding house with her word-processing parents. The adults slave away over a gardening catalog they produce, too busy to give Coraline (voiced by Dakota Fanning) a moment's thought or to cook her a decent meal.
The kid entertains herself. She has to. There's not much a girl can do with the pot-bellied trapeze artist (Ian McShane) upstairs or the plump, bawdy and doddering burlesque dancers (Jennifer Saunders and Dawn French) in the basement.
There's a mysterious door in the wall that gets Coraline's attention. When she opens it, she wanders into her "other" life with her "better" parents, a mom (Teri Hatcher) who cooks wondrous meals and dotes on her, and a father (John Hodgman, the PC in those Apple commercials) who whips off ditties about his Coraline on his piano. Coraline might wake up in the dreary, dull "real" world, but at night, she can slip off to her own personal Oz, where the colors are Van Gogh splashy, the flowers are playful and that stray cat who wanders through both worlds now speaks with the warning growl of Keith David.
"You probably think this other world is a dream come true," the cat cautions. "But you're wrong."
For one thing, all the alternate people have buttons for eyes.
Coraline must not let her real eyes be fooled by the promise of a shiny, idyllic life in button-eyed land and awaken to the menace packed in "your better mom's" iron-fisted rule over this alternate reality.
The voices, especially a vamping Russian-accented McShane and the British comedy duo French & Saunders, reunited for this film, are simply perfect. Fanning was recorded in the last blush of adolescence.
Selick stages the third act's chases and monstrous 3-D menace (this might be too much for anybody younger than 5) with style and wit.
But it's the pacing and look of Coraline, an amble through a lovingly realized model-makers' paradise, that makes the film stand out. A VW Beetle even has a perfectly smudged windshield. For all the polished electrons of the latest works from Pixar, Blue Sky or DreamWorks, Selick and Co. show that stop-motion animation still looks, moves and feels like nothing the computer animators' megabytes can mimic.