Unlike other recent films shot in 3-D ( "Bolt" comes to mind), this one takes rich advantage of the process, and does so without turning into a series of "gotcha!" shots. "Coraline" has wit as well as fright in its dark corners, and Selick's adaptation of the Neil Gaiman novella stays fairly faithful to the story. It's more streamlined and far more rewarding than the ungainly "Stardust," the previous Gaiman fantasy to reach the screen. Would the 8-year-old me have fallen for "Coraline"? Maybe not. Like my own 8-year-old, at that age I was more into comedy than anything designed to give me the comic willies. But the adult me is a big fan.
In a film critically dependent on tunnel imagery, there's a moment early on in "Coraline" crystallizing the rightness of Selick's touch. The blue-haired, quizzically intelligent preteen heroine, voiced well and earnestly by Dakota Fanning, has discovered a tiny door in the wall of her immense, ramshackle small-town Oregon home, recently purchased by her preoccupied parents. The first time she opens it, it's just a bricked-up wall. The second time -- and this is the moment -- a magical pink-and-blue tunnel expands before her widening eyes. If you see "Coraline" in a theater equipped with 3-D, and you should, the sight really is something.
Originally set in England, Gaiman's story works in a similar way, taking a simple premise and leading us ever further down a rabbit hole. Coraline discovers a parallel universe at the other end of the tunnel, a brighter, more inviting version of the same house, and her same parents. Here, all's well all the time: The food tastes better, the garden sprouts garishly colored amazements on cue, and a miniature train delivers a gravy boat atop a splendidly laid dining-room table. The entertainment is splendid as well, ranging from a fully trained mouse circus to music hall turns performed on stage at a gorgeous 19th century vaudeville house patronized by Scottish terriers.
From the start, the film plays its 11-year-old heroine's loneliness and dislocation for real (without going for cheap pathos), so that the story's shift into a darker, more sinister key feels natural. Other Mother and Other Father are much like Coraline's real parents, except for their eyes, made out of buttons. Their interest in Coraline comes with a catch, and the girl soon learns she cannot simply go back to her drab former life when she pleases.
Selick directed "The Nightmare Before Christmas" and, in a combination of live action and stop-motion animation, "James and the Giant Peach."
Certainly "Coraline" wears many influences, starting with Tim Burton and his taste for graveyard pranksterism. In the opening sequence, which owes a lot to the animation of the Quay Brothers, a telltale Coraline doll is restuffed, given button eyes and sent out into a dark void. The mouse circus evokes the old George Pal Puppetoons, and composer Bruno Coulais' excellent score recalls Danny Elfman's hurdy-gurdy melodies from "Nightmare."
It all works because Selick doesn't believe in the hard sell. You don't feel beaten up by the peril here, and the design collaborators -- cinematographer Pete Kozachik, effects supervisor Brian Van't Hul, animation head Anthony Scott, among others -- respect the mechanics of stop-motion, even as they embrace the depth of field offered by the 3-D framework. In the real-world sequences, Coraline's life is depicted in muted colors; when she discovers the Other World, her depth of field deepens, as does ours. Characters from one realm reappear in the other, "Wizard of Oz"-style, and the voice work is flavorsome in both. Teri Hatcher's Mother, John Hodgman's Father, Ian McShane's Russian mouse-tender and especially Fanning's forceful but sympathetic reading of Coraline serve the story well.
The movie isn't flawless. Coraline is given a friend, Wybie, she didn't have in the book, and he steals some of Coraline's thunder at the climax. I suppose the film is five or 10 minutes too long. Yet halfway through, I was already eager to revisit certain images from the first half again. That's a sure sign you're watching an adventurous movie with brains, personality, a look and a knack for inducing shivers, even as you're reminded to appreciate the parents you have, as opposed to the parents of your dreams.