Outside of animation-fanboy circles, not many people know Henry Selick’s name. Ask a random handful of strangers who directed 1993’s The Nightmare Before Christmas, and you’ll probably hear a lot of people talk about being just such huge fans of Tim Burton. True, Burton conceived and produced that film, but it was Selick, the meticulously crafty stop-motion animator and indeed the director, who actually brought it to life. Somehow, paradoxically, his is such an uncommon vision that collaboration has a way of rendering it almost anonymous.
Not helping matters, Selick’s subsequent feature-length efforts — his literally and figuratively half-animated take on Roald Dahl’s 1961 book James and the Giant Peach, in 1996, and his easily forgotten box-office misfire Monkeybone, in 2001 — rather bitterly attest to the reputation-leeching results of various studio-imposed creative compromises. But things should change for Selick with Coraline, his beautifully realized and intensely imaginative adaptation of the beloved Neil Gaiman novel, which reveals the filmmaker at the top of his game.
A product of the specialized Laika animation studio in Portland, Ore., Coraline also has the distinction of being the first hi-def stop-motion animated feature conceived and filmed entirely in stereoscopic 3D. For the fanboys, it’s a milestone; for everybody else, it’s an entrancing, terrifically entertaining movie.
Here’s what it’s about. Somewhere in the fertile yet gray-gloomy hills of the Pacific Northwest, a precocious young girl named Coraline Jones (voiced by Dakota Fanning) has just moved in to one flat in a creaky old country house. Her joyless, dully distracted parents (Teri Hatcher and John Hodgman) neglect her with impunity. Her new neighbors include a pair of voluble, elderly actresses (Dawn French and Jennifer Saunders), a Russian acrobat (Ian McShane) with a troupe of “circus mice,” and, from down the hill, a shy but nosy boy (Robert Bailey Jr.) of about Coraline’s age with a vaguely perturbing pet cat. Under the circumstances, Coraline can’t help but feel lonely and bored.
So it comes as both a wonder and a relief when she discovers, late one night, that the small, papered-over door in the living room wall is actually a portal to an alternate version of her life. In this vividly Oz-like other world, Coraline meets her “Other Mother” and “Other Father,” who seem both more interested in her and more interesting. OK, yes, they have buttons for eyes and that’s a little bit spooky-weird, but whatever she wants they’re glad to provide. Even if she doesn’t know she wants it. Like dad’s gorgeous outdoor garden, for instance, which has been landscaped to look like Coraline’s face and animated to look like a Busby Berkeley hallucination (it’s but one of the movie’s several astonishing set pieces).
Things are different here, all right. In this enchanted landscape, the housemates’ eccentricities tend to multiply, and the neighbor boy’s cat can even talk (with the voice of Keith David). Most of what he has to say, however, is worrisome, and just as Coraline begins to discover that her other world is — to understate the matter — not so appealing after all, she also discovers that she might be trapped in it forever.
Of course, her first view of that brightly billowy tunnel through the wall, unfurling like the famous, quease-inducing staircase shot in Vertigo, should have been fair warning. That the vision — developed by Selick with Japanese illustrator Tadahiro Uesugi — is so dazzling but also so unsettling is exactly the idea here, and what’s most impressive and satisfying about Coraline overall is its consistent unity of tale and technique. The 3D isn’t a Super Bowl-commercial-style gimmick, but instead a savory essential element, used with restraint and in artfully deliberate contrast to the grounded tactility of Selick’s signature stop-motion animation.
It should be said that the narrative isn’t flawless: Coraline the movie has much lurking within it, including a vague but persistent note of detachment. But maybe anything more personal would have been too personal. Like all enduring literature for children, Gaiman’s book and Selick’s film don’t shy away from the enormity of adult-scale malevolence. That, sometimes literally, is the beauty of it.
And, more to the point: Coraline might not have been Selick’s story to begin with, but that shouldn’t keep it from making his name.