Coraline Dir. Henry Selick

[Focus Features/Laika Entertainment; 2009]

3-D seems to experience a resurgence every couple of decades, with varying degrees of success. For whatever reason — the ridiculous glasses, filmmakers’ propensity for hurling objects at the audience — the technique hasn’t stuck, perhaps because it's rarely able to transcend mere novelty (Spy Kids 3-D, anyone?). It’s refreshing, then, to see 3-D harnessed as effectively as it is in Henry Selick’s latest stunner, Coraline. Selick employs the device with admirable restraint, coupling it with breathtaking stop-motion animation to create a truly immersive cinematic puppet show.

Based on a novel by Neil Gaiman, Coraline tells the story of its eponymous heroine (voiced by Dakota Fanning), a young girl who moves to a remote town populated by a host of eccentric characters, where her perpetually occupied parents (Teri Hatcher and John Hodgman) don’t have time to provide her with the attention she craves. While exploring her new home, Coraline stumbles upon a secret door that leads to an alternate universe, one like her own but superior in every way. There, she is doted upon by a seemingly perfect Other Mother, and everything -- including an enchanted garden, a comically absurd cabaret act, and a circus of mice (which provide three of the film’s most dazzling bravura sequences) -- exists only to delight her. But as the Other Mother’s demand for her to permanently join this looking-glass world grows increasingly insistent, Coraline realizes she is being drawn into something far darker than she initially realized.

While Fanning is occasionally a bit too “aw shucks” emphatic in her delivery, Hatcher is pitch perfect as the alternately charming and domineering Other Mother, veering between Stepford-esque sweet and Mommie Dearest terrifying. The real star here, however, is Selick’s animation. Indeed, Coraline makes a strong case for Selick as heir to a tradition of stop-motion masters that includes Jan Švankmajer and the Brothers Quay. While Coraline is, naturally, more audience friendly and more “pop” than the darkly surreal films of those animators, Selick’s movie covers significantly darker terrain and plumbs more cavernous depths than most children’s movies.

With the glut of CGI animated films that have monopolized the children’s market in recent years, Coraline looks especially fresh. Indeed, because it’s a story about a girl who enters a seemingly familiar world where everything is just slightly askew, the choice to adapt Gaiman’s novel as a stop-motion film makes sense. It’s a technique that brings to life the inanimate, thereby making the familiar seem unfamiliar and the ordinary extraordinary. Even if the story sags slightly in its third act, it’s easily forgiven. Like Coraline, we’re all too glad to let Selick draw us down the deliriously fantastical rabbit hole he’s created.

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