There’s a tricky age we all experience, when we’re children approaching our teens. We like to pretend we don’t need our parents for anything, request to be dropped off a mile away from the mall and can already declare our independence, but really aren’t ready to. The young heroine of Coraline, the new stop-motion animation fantasy/thriller from director Henry Selick and writer Neil Gaiman, is a junior high-age girl whose endlessly busy parents are always ignoring and sending her away. While exploring the new house they’ve just moved into, Coraline discovers a small door that leads to an alternate universe where her parents are available, hip and eager to entertain and hang on her every word. There’s a catch, of course, and it may have something to do with how everyone in this alternate world has buttons for eyes.
This is a girl’s wish-fulfillment fantasy gone bad and clearly the creation of Gaiman, the celebrated, quirky author of the Sandman graphic novels and co-writer of the recent Beowulf adaptation, to name just a couple of his many projects. Selick is best known for directing The Nightmare Before Christmas, which Tim Burton designed and wrote, but this modern-day adaptation of Alice in Wonderland, complete with a talking cat, has visually more in common with Selick’s bizarre, much-hated Monkeybone. However, this is, thankfully, worlds better than Monkeybone—the film’s technique and design are so terrific, I was willing to go almost anywhere the story wanted to take me.
Much of the movie is brilliantly offbeat and delightfully surreal, but some of it is just plain odd. The voice work by the actors is fine, but the characters remain goofy figures rather than flesh-and-blood individuals—the worlds they inhabit have more life and depth than they do. And the ending is a problem: it feels anticlimactic and uncertain of when to quit, instead of providing the satisfying conclusion you’d hope for.
Nevertheless, this funny, strange and scary trip never ceases to dazzle the eye. Some theaters are showing it in 3-D, which means the many onscreen sewing needles, creepy crawlies, beasties and winged monsters vividly jump out at you, a thrill that caused me to jump more than once.
The imagery of flying dogs, insect furniture, expressive felines, menacing buttons and a most unusual eclipse will stay with you. I was frequently reminded of the far-out dreamscapes and wild illustrations that marked the best fairy tales of my youth.
Parents need to take the PG-rating seriously and leave the keiki at home; this is too frightening for small children. Pre-teens around Coraline’s age will be delighted, while their parents may exit the theater creeped out and wondering, guiltily, if they have more in common with Coraline’s neglectful parents or their button-eyed doubles. MTW