"Coraline" brings childhood nightmares to 3-D life

LOS ANGELES (Hollywood Reporter) - Just when it appeared that adult themes, in films such as “Mary and Max” and “$9.99,” were going to run away with stop-motion animation, up pops Henry Selick (“The Nightmare Before Christmas”).

Not only is his charming “Coraline” a terrific children’s story, adapted from a novel by Neil Gaiman, but this is the first stop-motion feature ever made in 3-D.

If Focus Features can bring in mainstream audiences with its marketing, “Coraline,” which opens Friday (February 6) could become a solid family hit.

Gaiman’s fanciful tale takes on the classical “grass is always greener” theme within the context of an old and mysterious house. Coraline Jones (voiced by Dakota Fanning) is an 11-year-old newly moved into the Pink Palace with her busy parents (Teri Hatcher and John Hodgman). Unfortunately, no one seems to have any time for her. Even the moving boxes remain unpacked, and the family’s sparse furniture barely inhabits the rooms.

The other tenants are an eccentric lot. There’s a small, talkative boy, Wybie Lovat (Robert Bailey Jr.), a scruffy cat, two aging British actresses (Jennifer Saunders and Dawn French) and a Russian circus performer (Ian McShane). None succeeds in jolting Coraline out of her doldrums, though.

Then she discovers a secret door. She climbs through a long passageway into an alternate reality of the Pink Palace. Mother and Father are warm and attentive here: She tends a hot stove bursting with savory goodies, while he composes music. But Coraline knows her real mom never cooks and her dad, a writer, doesn’t write music. Then the eccentric neighbors perform all sorts of amazing vaudeville acts. And the cat (Keith David) talks! The only upsetting thing about this Other Mother and Other Father is that instead of eyes they have black buttons like dolls.

Coraline enjoys return visits to this alternate existence, which she swiftly determines is better than her real one. Before making a choice between the two households, though, the Other Mother shows her true colors. She schemes to keep Coraline in the alternate world, and the girl’s real parents disappear. Now it’s up to Coraline to save herself and her family.

The intensity of the idea of lost parents and ghost children, who appear later in the alternate Pink Palace, might frighten the very young. Otherwise, this is a marvelous family story, tapping into all sorts of childhood dreams and nightmares involving Mommy, monsters and heroic youngsters. Selick’s imaginative sets and puppets are in perfect pitch with Gaiman’s fantasy. The 3-D effects aren’t overdone but are used intelligently to make this world come brilliantly to life.

Those 3-D glasses still weigh somewhat heavily on the bridge of the nose. But it’s a small price to pay for such smart family entertainment.

Reuters/Hollywood Reporter