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As the Other World Turns

Coraline (2009)

LAIKA Entertainment

In “Coraline,” writer-director Henry Selick achieves the impossible. He’s made a PG-rated picture that’s genuinely dark and scary, and he and his team at LAIKA Studios have perfected the art of 3-D animation. Sit through enough middling family-film fare and superfluous extravaganzas put forth in the third dimension, and it becomes hard to be too optimistic about anything that fits into those categories – even a project with the literary pedigree of Neil Gaiman. But Mr. Selick’s film, drenched in an unsettling atmosphere and given the feel of a fairy tale gone perilously wrong greatly expands the potential of both worlds.

The film shows off an advanced form of the claymation Mr. Selick first widely showcased in “The Nightmare Before Christmas.” It is the ideal visual mode for an adaptation of Mr. Gaiman’s story, which trades in the horror latent in dolls, toys and other fake figures designed to approximate the real world for children. In a cultural environment driven by the credo that realistic computer generated animation should be accepted above all else, it’s refreshing to see a movie so committed to melding form and content in dreamlike reverie.

The narrative chronicles the plight of Coraline Jones (Dakota Fanning) as she moves with her family to a drab countryside home. Her parents (Teri Hatcher and John Hodgman) – writers of gardening guides – opt to pound away at their keyboards instead of paying attention to their daughter. One night, however, things perk up for the lonely girl when she crawls through a small door in the wall and into an alternate universe populated by otherworldly, far more fun-loving versions of her parents and neighbors.

There’s something rather unsettling about this utopia through the wall, and it’s not just that the Other Mother, Other Father and their counterparts have buttons for eyes. Volumes of children’s literature have been devoted to the notion that paradises wherein little boys and girls can have whatever they desire come at a price. Mr. Selick brilliantly hints at those consequences by rendering the other world in sharp colors and scenes of gaiety and non-stop delights. When Coraline debates whether she’d ever want to return to the cumbersome real world, things clearly have begun to turn, and from there the material heads into some deeply foreboding territory the content of which one dare not spoil.

The quality of Mr. Selick’s craft and the dense, haunting nature of Mr. Gaiman’s morality tale for children collectively make “Coraline” a resonant visceral experience. The filmmaker brilliantly incorporates the oft-misused 3-D format, using it to add texture to Mr. Gaiman’s carefully conceived, richly detailed world. Mercifully, the 3-D never becomes the story. Nothing is hurled at the viewers and Mr. Selick deeply respects the boundary between the audience and the screen fundamental to the success of cinema as an illusion. Thus “Coraline” is, in every sense, that rare example of a film in which the technical and dramaturgical ambitions of its makers have been perfectly fused.


Opens on Feb. 6 in the United States and on May 8 in Britain.

Directed by Henry Selick; written by Mr. Selick, based on the book by Neil Gaiman; director of photography, Pete Kozachik; edited by Christopher Murrie and Ronald Sanders; music by Bruno Coulais; production designer, Mr. Selick; produced by Mr. Selick, Bill Mechanic, Claire Jennings and Mary Sandell; released by Focus Features. Running time: 1 hour 40 minutes. This film is rated PG.

WITH THE VOICES OF: Dakota Fanning (Coraline Jones), Teri Hatcher (Mother/Other Mother) and Ian McShane (Mr. Bobinsky).


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