Film Review: Coraline

Movie adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s 'Alice in Wonderland'-like tale is too scary for very young kids, but a dazzling example of director Henry Selick’s stop-motion animation craft.

One of the earliest showcases for the new digital 3D technology was the 2006 re-release of director Henry Selick’s now-classic 1993 stop-motion animated musical The Nightmare Before Christmas, repurposed for 3D. With Coraline, Selick has now created the first stop-motion feature photographed from the get-go with 3D cameras. It also marks his teaming with another brilliant talent from the fantasy arena, Neil Gaiman, the prolific author of graphic novels, books for children and adults, and screenplays like 2007’s Beowulf.

Coraline, adapted by Selick from Gaiman’s 2002 novel, is anything but standard kids’ fare: It’s dark, creepy, surreal and idiosyncratic. But then again, so was Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. The film isn’t for the very young, and it may have a hard time reaching beyond a very narrow age range, but lovers of the art of stop-motion (the frame-by-frame manipulation of miniature models perhaps most recognized today from the Wallace and Gromit comedies) are well-advised to check out Selick’s latest remarkable handiwork.

In this instance, the title character doesn’t fall down a rabbit hole, but willingly pries open a mysterious door in her new house in the Oregon countryside. Eleven-year-old Coraline (voiced by Dakota Fanning) is feeling justly neglected by her parents, who both work from home, and the only local boy her age, Wybie Lovat, is just plain annoying. Coraline finds a degree of diversion in her new neighbors, plump onetime actresses Miss Spink and Miss Forcible and voluble Russian Mr. Bobinsky, who claims to be the ringmaster of a circus of mice.

Then, Coraline discovers a hidden door in the drawing room, which opens onto a circular passageway leading to…another house looking strangely like her own. She hears a voice that sounds like her mother’s, and is greeted in the kitchen by an odd facsimile of her mom, who eerily sports black buttons where her eyes should be. But this “Other Mother,” as she calls herself, is awfully pleasant and doting, and serves up the best lunch the girl has eaten in ages. Indeed, everything in this alternate realm seems marvelous at first: Her Other Father is friendlier, the backyard garden is dazzling, and the eccentric neighbors put on spectacular shows for her pleasure.

Coraline is enchanted—until her Other Mother tells her she can stay in this world forever if she agrees to have her eyes replaced with buttons. When the girl refuses, her life turns from pampering to persecution: Her real parents go missing, and she discovers that she’s not the first victim of this cruelly seductive maternal figure who grows increasingly tall and bony.

Selick’s script takes a little time to gather momentum—the early scenes between Coraline and the brash neighbor boy (a character not in the book) are less than engaging—but once the girl enters that alternate world, that’s the cue to unleash the filmmakers’ imagination. The two big production numbers staged by the neighbors are especially dazzling: Miss Spink and Miss Forcible’s show is enjoyed by a theatre filled with happy Scottie dogs, and Mr. Bobinsky’s rodent extravaganza would do Busby Berkeley proud. Throughout, the meticulous, painstaking design and execution of this eccentric tale are a wonder to behold—and even more so, of course, in the 3D version.

The talented Fanning is perfect casting for this demanding material, and Teri Hatcher gets a chance to show some unexpected range as Coraline’s distracted real mother, initially sweet Other Mother, and the raging monster that ultimately emerges. British comedy team Jennifer Saunders and Dawn French are a spot-on choice as the dotty actress duo, and Ian McShane is fun (and unrecognizable) as the hammy Mr. Bobinsky. Deep-voiced Keith David is an insinuating presence as an enigmatic cat who trails Coraline, and John Hodgman (of PC and Mac TV commercial fame) is nicely daft as dual dads.

Selick himself has signaled that his new film is “only for brave children of any age.” You can count us in as enthusiastic members of that minority.