Eerily inhabiting the netherworld where a young girl’s wildest dreams become her cruelest nightmares, “Coraline” is a dark delight. Although it coarsens some of the details in Neil Gaiman’s popular 2002 children’s horror novel, this eccentric and deliriously inventive fantasy finds stop-motion auteur Henry Selick scaling new heights of ghoulish whimsy, buoyed by a haunting score that works its own macabre magic. Probably too frightening for very small tots, the PG-rated Focus Features toon deserves to be seen in all its bigscreen 3-D glory, but should also achieve family-favorite status on homevid.
“Coraline” may benefit from the added synergy of an upcoming Off Broadway musical (slated for a May 6 world premiere) and a videogame (released Jan. 27) featuring voicework by three of the film’s thesps: Dakota Fanning, Keith David and Robert Bailey Jr. The captivatingly creepy yarn also has inspired an Italian short film, an Irish puppet show, a Swedish play and a P. Craig Russell graphic novel — not bad for a book that sprung from a series of bedtime stories Gaiman told his daughters in the 1990s.
Like the novel, the film functions as a crafty cautionary tale on the perils of getting what you want, whether it’s a pair of gloves or a new family. Yet the dazzling colors and unhinged imagination of Selick’s visual palette also have the effect of rendering “Coraline’s” fantasy world that much more eye-ticklingly and dangerously seductive.
Small but spunky, with blue hair and stick-like limbs, Coraline Jones (engagingly voiced by Fanning) is an only child who feels neglected by her garden-catalog-writing parents (Teri Hatcher, John Hodgman). The three have just moved into a ramshackle old boarding house whose other tenants include two faded actresses, Miss Spink (Jennifer Saunders) and Miss Forcible (Dawn French), and a Russian acrobat (Ian McShane) who has his own rodent circus.
Where Gaiman tossed off these peculiar supporting characters with deadpan drollery, the pic somewhat ill-advisedly turns them into colorful, almost Busby Berkeley-esque sideshow attractions that are simultaneously dazzling and wearying. Selick’s script also saddles Coraline with a goth-nerd sidekick, Wybie (Bailey), a figure of eventual dramatic importance but questionable comic value.
The film is on surer footing once Coraline unlocks a mysterious door in the wall and finds herself in a parallel dimension that looks an awful lot like home, emphasis on the awful. This haunted house is impeccably maintained by Coraline’s “other mother,” a dead ringer for her real mother, only she’s cheery and attentive and probably smells like cookies — oh, and she has black buttons where her eyes should be. Clearly, something’s not quite right here. And when the other mother tells Coraline she must live there forever and have buttons sewn into her own eyes (“Soon, you’ll see things our way”), the chill is unmistakable.
Coraline’s other mother likes to play games and create twisted facsimiles of real-world people and places; in that respect, she and Selick have a lot in common. While this is Selick’s first toon not produced by Tim Burton (after “The Nightmare Before Christmas” and “James and the Giant Peach”), it’s very much in keeping with that filmmaker’s darkly funny spirit; even the production design bears shades of Burton’s “Beetlejuice.” The use of stop-motion, as opposed to CG or hand-drawn 2-D animation, is inspired; with its slightly stilted, frame-by-frame movements and tactile, stylized puppets, the film never lets one forget that it’s an imperfectly hand-crafted marvel — a world the other mother herself might have stitched together.
As Coraline and a helpful cat (David) engage their enemy in a battle of wits, the film keeps bursting its stylistic boundaries: A scene set at the outer reaches of this make-believe world harks back to the Looney Tunes classic “Duck Amuck,” and a later sequence brilliantly visualizes the idea of Coraline as a fly trapped in her captor’s web. As a visual experience, “Coraline” is enriched immeasurably by its sophisticated 3-D engine, which is after subtler, more immersive effects — sweeping camera movements, delineation of foreground and background — than the mere gimmick of having objects pop out from the screen.
Riffing on her “Desperate Housewives” role with a devious sense of fun, Hatcher (with the help of some nifty character morphing by the pic’s animators) makes the other mother a villain worthy of the many evil stepmoms that have preceded her. But the film’s most indelible asset is French composer Bruno Coulais’ score, a feverish singsong concoction that evokes a girl’s everyday boredom as well as the demons lurking just beyond the limits of her imagination.