When adults review a movie like "Coraline," we inevitably feel compelled to say it's probably too creepy, too scary and too intense for "younger children." All of which is true. You plunk a five-year-old down in front of this film, and his nightmare's on you.
But what we forget is that by the time kids are a bit older, they LIKE being scared. "Coraline" is intermittently frightening and mildly funny, but it's wall-to-wall creepy. It practically redefines creepy.
Be advised, you're going to be handed a pair of those cheap-ass plastic 3-D glasses when you enter the theater, and like every pair of cheap-ass plastic 3-D glasses in movie history, they're going to make you look like either Buddy Holly or "Pat" or that guy from the Verizon wireless commercials. Brad Pitt could be procreating with Angelina Jolie while wearing these glasses and he wouldn't look good.
The 3-D effect give extra depth to the amazing stop-motion animation. Writer/director Henry Selick follows "The Nightmare Before Christmas" and "James and the Giant Peach" with another meticulously crafted visual gem. "Coraline" is always something to behold as a treat for the eyes, even when the thin story begins to lose momentum.
As for that story: it's "The Wizard of Oz" laced with acid. Coraline (voiced by Dakota Fanning) is a smart but sassy little girl who has just moved with her inattentive parents (Teri Hatcher and John Hodgman) into a giant Victorian house in the Northwest. Her neighbors include a bizarro, hunchbacked kid, a Russian circus performer and two ancient actresses who appear to be about one drinking binge away from re-creating "Whatever Happened to Baby Jane"?" There's also a mangy cat hanging about.
Like so many lonely girls of a certain age in stories of this kind, Coraline discovers a magical world. A small door in the wall opens only at night and leads to a parallel place, where Coraline's "other mother" is a seemingly all-loving, all-about-the-Coraline mom. She bakes, she hugs, she plays games with her little girl. Meanwhile, her "other Father" is like Robin Williams with a green thumb, the old ladies and the Russian circus performer put on spectacular shows, the annoying little boy who never shuts up is now mute, and the cat talks.
Coraline should listen to the cat. He's the only one who seems aware that all is not perfect in the other world. (For one thing, everyone has buttons where their eyes should be.)
When Coraline realizes what's happening in the other world, she engages in a prolonged battle with that Other Mother, who grows increasingly Wicked Witch-like. Selick's inexhaustible trick bag of insanely weird images gets darker by the minute. The pace quickens and the music intensifies, but the very elements that make "Coraline" so interesting also serve as a barrier of sorts, blocking out our involvement with the characters.
By its very nature, stop-motion animation practically ensures that everyone, even the cute little girl of the title, will seem kind of chilly and, yes, creepy. (The same could be said of the live-action performance capture technology used in "The Poloar Express.") After getting over the initial gee-whiz appreciation of the great craftsmanship at work here, I tried to get into the story of Coraline and I tried to care about whether she'd wind up with buttons sewn into her eyes, but it never really took. I'm recommending "Coraline," but if you're not a fan of this type of animation or you're not a kid of a certain age looking to be creeped out for the fun of it, you'll be all right taking a pass on this one.