Scintillating Coraline opens a case of curious buttons

click to enlarge WONDER WOMAN: Coraline (right) - Courtesy Focus Features
Courtesy Focus Features
WONDER WOMAN: Coraline (right)

[Recommended] Coraline

Directed by Henry Selick. Stars the voices of Dakota Fanning, Teri Hatcher. Rated PG. Opens Fri., Feb. 6. At area theaters.

The fantastical opening credits sequence of Coraline superbly sets the stage for the eerie wonders to come. An unseen, scissor-handed figure sews and dresses a rag doll in an otherworldly environment. At one point a needle pops through the coarse fabric and JUTS RIGHT OUT AT THE AUDIENCE, in one of those amusing show-offy moments we expect from 3-D movies, but that still takes us by surprise.

Coraline employs most of its 3-D effects more subtly but with seamless effectiveness. Henry Selick, who also directed Tim Burton's The Nightmare Before Christmas, presents an ingenious fusion of delicate stop-motion animation and splashy 3-D gimmickry. Each style enhances the other. Coraline's toys-in-the-attic designs seem even more tactile and solid rendered in three dimensions. The combination insistently beckons the audience into the film's creepy yet magical places better than the 2-D version would.

Appropriately enough, Coraline's story hinges on the escape from flat, humdrum reality. Bored, blue-haired tween Coraline Jones (voiced by Dakota Fanning) moves unhappily into a middle-of-nowhere rooming house called the Pink Palace. Her parents (voiced by Teri Hatcher and John Hodgman) can only focus on their deadlines for writing a garden supply catalog. This leaves Coraline to busy herself exploring the ramshackle house and its dismal grounds, while avoiding the quirky, self-absorbed neighbors.

Behind a mysterious door she discovers an alternate version of the Pink Palace that offers all the warmth and excitement the real world lacks. Rather than pecking perpetually at a computer keyboard, for instance, her Other Father tickles the ivories of a player piano and croons a "Coraline" song (unmistakably written by They Might Be Giants). Her Other Mother proves to be a nurturing domestic goddess and avid cook: In an amusing 3-D moment, the parents exclaim "Here comes the gravy train" as a sauce-carrying choo-choo rattles across the dinner table.

The gray, dull color scheme of everyday life gives way to luminescent hues and charming gizmos such as her Other Father's mantis-shaped garden plow that unfolds into a whirlybird. The Other World has all the savor and splendor missing from Coraline's normal life, but why do all the Others have dark buttons where their eyes should be?

The only snag in Coraline's pattern is that the film's ordinary world seems nearly as eccentric as the magical one. Coraline rolls her eyes at the annoying antics of a boy named Wybie (for "Why born?"). Neighbors include a Russian circus mouse trainer (voiced by Ian McShane) and a pair of aging burlesque dancers, Spink and Forcible (the former comedy duo Dawn French and Jennifer Saunders). Their Other selves offer outlandish, surreal entertainments, but don't seem that different from the real ones, blunting the contrast between the film's vision of fantasy and truth.

Selick adapted the screenplay from a novella by Neil Gaiman, an already legendary comic book writer who specializes in filtering classic story archetypes for modern audiences, such as his script for the 3-D Beowulf. Selick and Gaiman show palpable affection for their young heroine and her Juno-esque wisecracks as they send her on an Alice in Wonderland-style adventure. There's even a talking feline (voiced by the unflappable Keith David) reminiscent of the Cheshire Cat, who could be her only trustworthy ally.

Coraline also draws on the traditions of darker fairy tales and ghost stories from the likes of the Brothers Grimm, thrusting its heroine into nightmarish situations that put her courage and resourcefulness to the test. Despite its PG rating, Coraline includes chilling imagery that could terrify children younger than 10, even as it crafts a haunting coming-of-age fantasy about a girl discovering her self-reliance. Coraline earns its place on the shelf alongside similar new classics such as Spirited Away and Pan's Labyrinth, but its wild, multi-dimensional imagery is only its second most important trait. Despite the character's button eyes, Coraline's heart is in the right place.

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