VOICES OF: Dakota Fanning, Teri Hatcher, John Hodgman, Robert Bailey, Jr. Jennifer Saunders, Dawn French, Ian McShane, Keith David

2009, 100 Minutes, Directed by: Henry Selick

The worst thing one can say about Coraline is that it's not quite as good as director Henry Selick's masterpiece, The Nightmare Before Christmas. On the other hand, considering the caliber of that film - and the heavily mixed bag which Selick has produced in the intervening years - Coraline stands in very good company.

It reinterprets the marvelous whimsy of Nightmare in a unique new form; its dark fairy tale feels at once fresh and timeless (as befits the original author, Neil Gaiman). If its climax loses a certain momentum or its fantastic world contains the odd pothole or two, what of it? Films with much fewer assets have gotten away with much worse.

Selick possesses something of a magic bullet with the stop-motion animation he specializes in. Under its snapshutter elegance, even mundane activities such as climbing the stairs take on a wondrous fascination. That pays dividends as Coraline gets up to speed. The tropes resemble those of many children's tales: a titular girl (voiced by Dakota Fanning), ignored by her overworked parents, is left free to wander around the spooky house they have just moved into and eventually starts poking into corners perhaps better left alone. One in particular holds especial interest: a tiny door, wallpapered over, which leads to a seemingly more perfect world.

"Coraline doesn't need  gimmicks such as 3-D!"

Coraline herself scores the film's first genuine coup mostly with her extraordinary ordinariness. Filmmakers often feel the need to make such characters "special" by saddling them with a bevy of quirky outsider clichés. Not so this one. She's clever and can think on her feet, but otherwise she's just a bored little girl eager for some excitement. That helps the more fantastic elements feel all the more surprising. Her version of excitement basically centers on the idea of a better mother, one who pays attention to her and does more interesting things than struggle to keep the bills paid. That little door has one for her - kinder, gentler and with infinitely cooler things to do.

The "Other Mother" cooks fantastic meals served on miniature trolley cars and grows gardens patterned after Coraline's face. Neighbors and other members of her family have their own doppelgangers beyond the door as well, all practiced in wondrous magic tricks and all seemingly devoted to making her happy. Of course, they also sport these strange button eyes - save for a solitary black cat (voiced by Keith David) who, like Coraline herself, moves between the two worlds with ease - and there's something a little hungry in their smiles, but that certainly couldn't come back to bite our young heroine on the bottom, could it?

Selick adorns the basic arc with a cornucopia of imaginative details, ranging from the whimsical (an audience hall filled with appreciative Scottie dogs) to the terrifying (the melting spider-like visages behind that alternate universe). They pull us through the movie's landscape, defying expectations just often enough to keep us on our toes while seducing us with their charm as completely as Nightmare did.

The voice casting helps, topped by Fanning's spot-on embodiment of Coraline and Teri Hatcher's various forms of mother. But the film's success hinges most significantly on the delicate balance between its two primary creative forces: harnessing Gaiman's defiance of expectations with the imaginative execution of Selick's painstakingly manipulated puppets. A certain leisurely pace in the first act and a bit of routine mopping up in the third are all that stand between it and genuine masterpiece status.

In light of that, its use of 3-D becomes almost superfluous. Supporters maintain that stop-motion is enhanced by the process, and it certainly doesn't damage the film unduly to see all the sets and characters popping out of the screen at us. At the same time, those funky glasses add little beyond a slightly more interesting palate: one which isn't unduly missed when viewed in two dimensions. Coraline needs no such gimmicks to excel at its appointed task. Its core is too compelling, its characters too irresistible to be hobbled by that crutch. See it in three dimensions or see it in two: it makes no difference.

The spell it casts pulls us in regardless, reminding those who watch it what wonders this medium is capable of.

- Rob Vaux


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