A Better Home And Garden, But For Those Buttons

Wybie and Coraline i i

In The Mist Of It: Coraline and her exasperating new friend Wybie navigate her gloom-shrouded new neighborhood. LAIKA Inc./Focus Features hide caption

itoggle caption LAIKA Inc./Focus Features
Wybie and Coraline

In The Mist Of It: Coraline and her exasperating new friend Wybie navigate her gloom-shrouded new neighborhood.

LAIKA Inc./Focus Features

Coraline

  • Director: Henry Selick
  • Genre: Animated Fantasy
  • Running Time: 101 minutes

Rated PG for scary situations and suggestive language.

Coraline's Other Mother i i

What's Wrong With This Picture? Coraline's Other Mother smiles prettily, but there's something off-putting about those eyes. LAIKA Inc./Focus Features hide caption

itoggle caption LAIKA Inc./Focus Features
Coraline's Other Mother

What's Wrong With This Picture? Coraline's Other Mother smiles prettily, but there's something off-putting about those eyes.

LAIKA Inc./Focus Features
Coraline and Mr. Bobinsky i i

Psst! Coraline and Mr. Bobinsky — her blue, 8-foot-tall circus-performer neighbor — share a secret. LAIKA Inc./Focus Features hide caption

itoggle caption LAIKA Inc./Focus Features
Coraline and Mr. Bobinsky

Psst! Coraline and Mr. Bobinsky — her blue, 8-foot-tall circus-performer neighbor — share a secret.

LAIKA Inc./Focus Features

Frame by frame, Henry Selick's adaptation of Neil Gaiman's Coraline is entrancing; it's among the most exquisite animated feature films ever made in this country.

The book is a nightmare variation on the old somewhere-over-the-rainbow fantasy: A little girl named Coraline moves to a rambling country house, where she has no friends and her busy parents brush her off. She longs for someplace better.

Then she finds a tunnel in a wall that leads to a parallel universe, where she has a nearly identical mother and father, except they dote on her. Goodies appear at her command, mice serenade her, flower gardens rearrange themselves in the shape of her face.

But there are hints of darker forces. Her Other Parents have black buttons in place of eyes, and when Coraline begins to chafe under their attention, her Other Mother's so-called love becomes possessive — even demonic. Gradually, we discern the warning at the heart of this great fairy tale: Sometimes, the people who love us with the most intensity do so for reasons that have nothing to do with us, but out of their own twisted needs. Coraline is a be-careful-what-you-wish-for story, and a testimonial to self-reliance.

To tell this tale on film, Selick employs old-fashioned stop-motion animation — that's where you put puppets on miniature sets and move them a teeny bit, shoot a few frames, and move them again. The puppets have wide, smooth faces on stick legs and necks; their jerkiness is barely perceptible, but enough to make the movie feel lovingly handmade.

Selick worked with the Japanese illustrator Tadahiro Uesugi, and they've come up with a look that's part Tim Burton, part Pinocchio, part Japanese wood block. But that doesn't do the film justice; it has a palette all its own.

The movie is in 3-D at about half of its theaters, and you should see it at one of those: You'll feel as if you're floating through this dollhouse world along with the wide-eyed heroine. The ravishing score, by Bruno Coulais, moves almost imperceptibly from childlike enchantment to thunderstormy, Night on Bald Mountain dread.

I wish I could leave it at that, but unlike Gaiman, Selick isn't a brilliant storyteller. For reasons I can't figure out, he gums up a lot of what the book got right — among them the laws of the universe. Coraline can now go to sleep in one world and wake up in another, which makes the tunnel seem less vital. He creates a male peer for Coraline, a nerd called Wybie who undercuts the bell-jar isolation she suffers in the book, and who plays way too big a role in the climax — which ought to be Coraline's triumph. (Did the studio want a boy character for commercial reasons?)

The real mom and dad, voiced by Teri Hatcher and John Hodgman, aren't just quietly neglectful here; they're appallingly mean and insensitive. In one scene, as Coraline pleads for attention, her mom snaps that she's too busy, tossing her a package that contains a doll Wybie left for her. It looks like Coraline, only with black-button eyes.

The problem with a real mom who's that unpleasant is that Coraline's goal — to get back to her real home after she's trapped in the other world — doesn't have the emotional oomph it does in Gaiman's book.

But the movie's visuals are so rich that in the end, the flaws don't matter: The images have the emotional oomph.

In the alternate world, nothing is what it appears to be. Facades pixelate and dissolve; figures don't move of their own accord — they're animated and controlled by the monstrous Other Mother.

Director Selick might be more invested in creating phantasmagorical set pieces than in spinning a coherent yarn, but in a strange way that works for the movie. Coraline, after all, is fighting within the film to hold her own against an animator; that she holds her own against her virtuoso director is icing on the cake.

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