"Coraline" is a whimsical adventure that bubbles over with inventiveness.
A labor of love in every frame, "Coraline" pushes the envelope of animated moviemaking while tugging at the heart. Adapted from the children's novel by acclaimed fantasy author Neil Gaiman, the film conjures a world of wonders in 3D stop-motion animation.
It creates two worlds, actually, as the heroine discovers a passageway from her daily life (Oregon, rain, boring parents) to a parallel universe that's entirely too good to be true. The director, genius puppetmaster Henry Selick ("The Nightmare Before Christmas," "James and the Giant Peach"), has created an agreeably creepy wonderland of giant bugs, dancing flowers and acrobatic mice, along with a few hair-raising hobgoblins that find a worthy adversary in courageous Coraline. The very tenderest young sprouts may find the film overwhelming, but most kids will enjoy the spunky heroine's triumph over the forces of darkness and temptation.
Like many good adventures, the story begins in boredom. With too much time on her hands, Coraline (voiced by Dakota Fanning) begins exploring her new home, a mysterious Victorian mansion. It is equipped with a secret child-sized door, and on the other side Coraline finds a replica of her household. This one, however, has lovely furnishings, scrumptious food, animated toys and two hyper-attentive parents, the Other Father and the Other Mother -- a very possessive button-eyed beauty who aims to keep Coraline by her side forever and ever and ever.
All she asks in return is to pluck out Coraline's pretty hazel eyes and sew a couple of dull black buttons into the sockets. When Coraline objects to staying in her house and under her thumb, the other mother replies with honeyed assertiveness, "I'm going to need a 'Yes.'"
The film is a cavalcade of talent. Teri Hatcher delivers a revelatory vocal performance as Coraline's two mothers, one speaking with exasperated affection, the other with sugarcoated malice. Ian McShane is in fine form as a consonant-crunching Russian acrobat who lives in the apartment above Coraline's, and the English comedy team of Dawn French and Jennifer Saunders play verbal badminton with their dialogue as daffy old actresses who inhabit the room below.
Selick's vision is whimsical, macabre and ornate. His puppets, painstakingly manipulated frame by frame, are remarkably expressive; Coraline is believably sullen, stubborn, frightened and brave. Selick takes the tale into phantasmagorical realms in the last act, when Coraline's rebellion against the Other Mother becomes a battle royal involving a tractor morphed into a praying mantis, and a 20-story spider web.
The 3D spatial effects are consistently impressive, although the transition from page to screen is not, to borrow a phrase from Gaiman, "as smooth as oiled silk." Selick's screenplay adds a dirt-biking neighbor boy who helps save the day (undercutting the heroine's independence in order to draw in young males) and a lollapalooza action finale that turns the novel's supple, suggestive prose into something that might have been rewritten by Michael Bay. And the horror of replacing Coraline's eyes with buttons is diminished by the fact that she is, after all, a doll. A live actress threatened with eye replacement would evoke a greater sense of peril.
But these are quibbles. In every way that matters, the film is a miraculous achievement. Movies often promise a magical experience and welsh on the deal. "Coraline" delivers.