DAVE DAVIES, host:
The British-born author Neil Gaiman has won a large following in three different genres - adult fantasy fiction, graphic novels and books for young readers, among them "The Graveyard Book," which won this year's Newberry Medal. His 2002 novel "Coraline" is now a movie, written and directed by Henry Selick, who directed Tim Burton's "The Nightmare Before Christmas," as well as "James and the Giant Peach." Film critic David Edelstein has this review of "Coraline."
DAVID EDELSTEIN: 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 fairytale: 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 have puppets on miniature sets and move them a teeny bit and 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 3D at about half the 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 "Night on Bald Mountain," thunderstormy 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 has in the book and plays way too big a role in the climax, which ought to be Coraline's triumph.
The real mom and dad, voiced by Teri Hatcher and John Hodgman, aren't just quietly neglectful here. They're appallingly mean and insensitive. Here's Dakota Fanning's Coraline pleading for attention. At the end of the scene, her mom tosses her a package, which contains a doll Wybie left for her. It looks like Coraline, only with black button eyes.
(Soundbite of movie "Coraline")
Ms. DAKOTA FANNING: (As the Voice of Coraline Jones) So, can I go out? I think it's perfect weather for gardening.
Ms. TERI HATCHER: (As the Voice of Mother) No, Coraline. Rain makes mud. Mud makes a mess.
Ms. FANNING: (As the Voice of Coraline Jones) Mom, I want stuff growing when my friends come to visit. Isn't that why we moved here?
Ms. HATCHER: (As the Voice of Mother) Something like that.
Ms. FANNING: (As the Voice of Coraline Jones) You and dad get paid to write about plants, and you hate dirt.
Ms. HATCHER: (As the Voice of Mother) Coraline, I don't have time for you right now. And you still have unpacking to do - lots of unpacking.
Ms. FANNING: (As the Voice of Coraline Jones) That sounds exciting.
Ms. HATCHER: (As the Voice of Mother) Oh, some kid left this on the front porch.
Mr. ROBERT BAILEY, JR.: (As the Voice of Wybie) Hey, Jonesie. Look what I found in grandma's trunk. Look familiar? Wybie.
Ms. FANNING: (As the Voice of Coraline Jones) Huh. A little me? That's weird.
Ms. HATCHER: (As the Voice of Mother) What's his name anyway?
Ms. FANNING: (As the Voice of Coraline Jones) Wybie. And I'm way too old for dolls.
EDELSTEIN: The problem with a real mom who's that unpleasant is that Coraline's goal to get back to her real home when she's trapped in the other world doesn't have the emotional oomph of Gaiman's book. But the movie's visuals are so rich that in the end, the flaws don't matter. The visuals have the emotional oomph.
In the alternate world, nothing is what it appears to be - facades pixelate and dissolve, and 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.
DAVIES: David Edelstein is film critic for New York Magazine.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.