Coraline (PG) ***

In this image released by Focus Features, a scene is shown from the animated film, "Coraline."

By Rene Rodriguez, The Miami Herald

The best children’s stories — on the page or the screen — aren’t afraid of the dark. Coraline, director Henry Selick’s adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s novel, is essentially a horror movie for kids, but it is also gentle and funny and whimsical, and even in its darkest moments, Selick never forgets who his target audience is.

Still, some young children might have a nightmare or two after seeing it. Shot in the same glorious stop-motion animation he used in The Nightmare Before Christmas and James and the Giant Peach, Coraline kicks up expectations a notch by being in 3-D, too. Selick employs the technology the way a real artist would, using it not to jab objects into our faces but to give his astoundingly detailed universe an added layer of visual depth and dimension.

When little Coraline (voiced by Dakota Fanning) opens a secret door she has found behind the wallpaper in her bedroom, the glowing tunnel on the other side looks like you could crawl into it yourself. And when Coraline explores the mysterious otherworld beyond — which is essentially a duplicate of her own real, drab, world, except everyone is a lot nicer and happier, and magical things are constantly happening — the colors and sights popping up the screen make you understand why the girl would be tempted to never return home.

Except for one little, exceedingly creepy detail: All the people in this other world, including her parents (Teri Hatcher and John Hodgman), have buttons for eyes. ”You could stay here forever if you wanted to,” her sweet, doting alternate Mom tells her. ”There’s just one little thing we need to do.” Cue the thread and needle.

Selick, who spent four years bringing Coraline to life, has an understanding for the way in which children react to adults, and how different that is from the way they relate to other kids. Coraline’s real-life parents aren’t neglectful in any way. They’re just not as attentive and patient as their daughter — who is lonely and bored after moving into this strange new home — would like them to be.

Even if they were, there’s no way they could compete with the wonders the world beyond the door offers, which include a circus of acrobatic mice and a garden of living flowers — just two of the movie’s most astounding visual setpieces. If Coraline doesn’t register as deeply as Selick’s previous two pictures, it’s because the film is lighter on narrative than Gaiman’s book and heavier on Looney Tunes-ish interludes (it also lacks the musical numbers of Nightmare Before Christmas, which are the secret to that movie’s undying popularity). There are times when, despite all the sinister enchantment onscreen, Coraline feels like it’s dawdling.

But Selick is the only animator left in Hollywood still making full-length stop-motion films, and he’s so good at his craft that the film is worth seeing for its visuals alone (the 3-D is just a bonus.) And even if Coraline doesn’t completely enrapture grown-ups, children won’t have the same complaint. What kid won’t sit still for a story in which that magical place on the other side of the rainbow turns out to be a nightmare?

Voices: Dakota Fanning, Teri Hatcher, Jennifer Saunders, Dawn French, Keith David, John Hodgman, Ian McShane.

Writer-director: Henry Selick. Based on the novel by Neil Gaiman.

Producers: Bill Mechanic, Claire Jennings, Henry Selick.

A Focus Features release. Running time: 100 minutes. Some scary moments. Playing at area theaters.


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