C oraline uses 3-D as a vehicle of artistic delight. The writer-director, Henry Selick, hewing closely to Neil Gaiman's novel, employs it not for cheap thrills but for wonder. The combination of 3-D photography and puppet-animation - centered on actual figures designed by hand and manipulated frame by frame - creates a world that's dense, active and fluid: a sensory Jacuzzi.
When Selick's independent-minded heroine, 11-year-old Coraline, follows a path through a tiny, square door into a house that looks mysteriously like her own, the tunnel she crawls through functions like Alice's rabbit hole or Dorothy Gale's cyclone. The difference between Coraline and those other fantasies is that the girl's world is as nutty as the fantasy world, but a lot less cozy and attractive.
Coraline's family has just moved from Michigan to the hills outside of Ashland, Ore., and rented the second story of a rambling, picturesque, three-story house. It's summer, and the only prospect of a pal is the scamp next door, Wybie, who races around on an electric bike while wearing Halloween masks three months early. Her parents have no time to minister to her loneliness. Coraline's father, on deadline for a garden catalog, offers nothing more than ineffectual warmth and some yucky home-cooked casseroles. Her mother wears the pants and carries the real brains in the family; she whips dad's catalog into shape. She doesn't sense her daughter's dire need for pleasure, even on a matter as mundane as buying a bright pair of gloves.
The movie is daringly upfront about the ambivalence that children have toward their parents. In the cracked, mirror-image world she enters through the tunnel, Coraline's "Other Mother" whips up voluptuous comfort food and supplies her with groovy duds, while her "Other Father" picks out tunes on a player piano that plays him. They want her to stay.
Selick and Gaiman surround the family with wacky supporting characters who alienate Coraline until they, too, show up on the other side of the magic door, magnificently transformed. She comes to see these off-putting figures the way they see themselves. The batty old British theater dames who once performed in Ashland's Shakespeare Festival perform an acrobatic music-hall act in a red-velvet theater full of their beloved Scottish terriers. They metamorphose in mid-act into the voluptuous babes they may have been in their youth. The 8-foot-tall blue Russian giant who lives upstairs and speaks of training his "Jumping Mouse Circus" really is a splendid figure. Through pleasure, Coraline develops empathy.
Coraline's love at first sight for her other world is, of course, too good to be true. The movie is all about developing second sight - and insight. Selick's triumph in Coraline is to make even Coraline's cozy visions creepy, and to lavish so much artistry upon them that they're delightfully creepy. Selick catches you, along with Coraline, in a spider's web, and his visual splendor transfixes you, even when you feel the strands tightening around your brain. When the movie turns totally tense and frightening, the danger triggers a fighting spirit deep in Coraline that offsets her (and younger viewers') terror. She knows which world to choose when she's put to the test.
Selick strengthens Gaiman's plot, but the movie rests on an enveloping vision of childhood. For kids, it says, "Be it ever so drab, there's no place like home." For adults, it says, you'd better make them feel they have a home that's uniquely theirs.
Selick earned kudos for directing The Nightmare Before Christmas, and the skeletal arachnid who figures in this movie's climax would look right at home in the world of the Pumpkin King. But the movie connects more closely to Selick's adaptation of Roald Dahl's James and the Giant Peach. Selick has a feeling for the intermingled strength and cravenness of youth. He knows how titillating the grotesque can be for kids, but he also knows how they like to pull the covers over their heads once they've had their full of it. Selick uses the 3-D wisely, mostly to help make Coraline's other world into a solid alternative - and then a scary fun house.
Only a cat moves between these worlds - and, along with Coraline, he's the only figure who remains the same in both. He only looks like a villain. He turns out to have an admirable integrity (he knows a rat when he sees one), and Coraline develops a push-pull relationship with him that's volatile and charming.
Keith David voices the cat with a timbre that registers on the ear the way rippling feline fur does to the touch.
The rest of the cast, including Ian McShane as Bobinski, Jennifer Saunders and Dawn French as the actresses downstairs, and, as Coraline's parents, Teri Hatcher and The Daily Show's resident expert on everything, John Hodgman, deliver the appropriate combinations of histrionics and dry humor.
The visuals, though, are what get to you. Initially, the biggest difference between Coraline's real family and circle of acquaintances and her new friends (or are they?) is that the people in the other world have buttons for eyes.
Early on, Coraline's pal Wybie gives her a puppet version of herself with button eyes. And when Coraline seeks to retrieve a few lost people's souls, it's their eyes she's looking for. Selick is a true visual artist: He goes right for his audience's eyes, and through them opens up a freshly imagined universe.