Henry Selick’s [movie id="301308"]“Coraline”[/movie] puts 3-D technology to glorious new use. Turning away from the clichéd poke-in-the-eye thrills of most previous 3-D films, this sophisticated stop-motion picture — literally years in the making — uses the latest visual technology to draw us deep into the complex layers of its animated world, where we marvel at the gemlike colors and swirling perspectives. Knowing that the picture was created one painstaking film frame at a time adds another dimension of wonder.
The picture is based on the 2002 fantasy novel by Neil Gaiman. Gaiman is an admirer of Selick’s “The Nightmare Before Christmas” and “James and the Giant Peach,” the two stop-motion movies the director made under the aegis of his friend Tim Burton. So, as soon as the author had finished the manuscript for “Coraline,” he sent it to Selick — an excellent move, as we now see.
The story has a rich, unforced emotional power. Coraline Jones (voiced in the film by [movieperson id="266286"]Dakota Fanning[/movieperson]) is an 11-year-old girl who has just moved with her parents from Michigan to a remote and rambling old house in Oregon. Her mom (Teri Hatcher) and dad (John Hodgman) are writers, and thus much preoccupied with deadlines and bookish contemplations; Coraline, friendless in her new surroundings, feels neglected. A bumbling local boy named Wybie (Robert Bailey Jr.) makes himself available for acquaintance as Coraline scouts the nearby hills and fields, but she writes him off as an annoyance. There are also two apartments in the new house, but their occupants are exceedingly strange: a pair of ancient vaudeville ladies called Miss Spink (Jennifer Saunders) and Miss Forcible (Dawn French), and on the top floor, a bulbous Russian, Mr. Bobinsky (Ian McShane), who maintains an elaborate mouse circus and feasts on beets.
Wandering through the rooms of her new home one day, Coraline discovers a small door that opens onto a brick wall. Later, in a dream, she makes her way through the door and crawls down a long passageway into what turns out to be an alternative world, complete with much-improved versions of her parents. The Other Mother here has all the time in the world to cook wonderful things for Coraline, and Other Father is endlessly attentive to her wants and desires. They’re perfect. (“Everything is right in this world,” her second dad says.) Oddly, though, both of these ideal elders have black buttons installed where their eyes should be.
Coraline shuttles back and forth between these two worlds — sometimes in the company of a droll cat (Keith David), who sometimes speaks. When Other Mother suddenly demands that Coraline remain in her world — and be equipped with her own pair of button eyes — the picture takes on a tone of lyrical dread.
The movie’s wonders begin with Coraline herself. She’s not the saucer-eyed cutie of so many animated fantasies, but a budding punkette of very contemporary spunk and spirit (oh, and blue hair). And the alternative world she moves through is thick with visual delights: ridable grasshoppers, incandescent night gardens and a fantastical piano that plays its player. There’s also an extended mouse-circus scene with Bobinsky and his lively rodents — which required more than two months to animate — that must surely establish a new benchmark in stop-motion filmmaking; and a spectacular theatrical performance by the two ancient neighbor ladies — before a large audience of carefully individualized Scottish terriers — that can only be seen, not adequately described.
Early stop-motion films — most famously those animated by Willis O’Brien (the 1933 “King Kong”) and later by Ray Harryhausen (the 1958 “Seventh Voyage of Sinbad”) — had a herky-jerky character dynamic that now seems a part of their charm. Selick’s film — each minute of which required nearly a week to create — is enthrallingly seamless, down to its last drift of fluttering fabric and delicately dusty glass. It’s a movie of consummate technical sophistication that evokes the half-forgotten terrors of childhood with a spine-tingling precision. Is it too dark and scary for children? (When Other Mother suddenly rears up in hideous fury, you know you’ve left the nursery.) Maybe, a little bit. But as any kid will tell you, that’s a recommendation.
Check out everything we’ve got on “Coraline.”
For breaking news, celebrity columns, humor and more — updated around the clock — visit MTVMoviesBlog.com.