Coraline (Focus Features), an animated feature based on the young-adult novel by Neil Gaiman and directed by Henry Selick, sticks a colorful crazy straw into the well of children's literature and drinks long and deep. Like Alice in Alice in Wonderland, the heroine, an 11-year-old only child, goes down a hole and emerges in another world. Like the siblings in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, she discovers that portal in a forgotten corner of her own house. The alternate universe she visits at first seduces her with its seemingly unlimited pleasures—shades of Pinocchio's Land of Toys—but like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, she's soon desperate only to go home.
As it moves into its ghoulish second act, though, Coraline has less in common with these nursery classics than with Invasion of the Body Snatchers. The world that Coraline Jones (voiced by Dakota Fanning) enters through that bricked-up wall is an uncanny double of her own, minus (or so it seems) all the bad parts. Her crabby and work-obsessed parents (Teri Hatcher and John Hodgman) have been replaced with jolly sycophants eager to satisfy her every desire: Suddenly, her mother whips up perfect dinners, her father has planted a fantastical garden in the shape of Coraline's face, and the dining room chandelier doubles as a milkshake dispenser. The Jones' eccentric neighbors, a Russian acrobat (Ian McShane) and two aged burlesque dancers (Dawn French and Jennifer Saunders) have been transformed into younger and kindlier versions of themselves who put on fabulous shows each night for Coraline and her friend Wybie (Robert Bailey Jr.). The only downside to this Land of Cockaigne: All of its denizens have flat, glossy black buttons instead of eyes. A detail Coraline's willing to overlook, until the "other mother" starts demanding that Coraline take a nice sharp needle and sew on some eye-buttons of her own: "Soon, you'll see things our way." Uh-oh.
Coraline is at its best in this middle section, before the somewhat muddled cosmology that links these twin universes begins to unravel. The film's groundbreaking animation technique—it's the first stop-motion feature film to be made in three dimensions—is uniquely suited to re-creating the sensory overload Coraline experiences as she steps into this brave new world. Unlike CGI, stop-motion animation is a tactile medium, its textures and volumes vividly palpable. The pink, gabled house in which Coraline and her parents live looks and feels like a dollhouse full of marvelous small objects (a tiny stuffed toy, a hand-stitched sweater) that the viewer wants to reach in and touch—and the subtly realized 3-D effects make that interaction with the image seem almost possible. The skinny-limbed, blue-haired Coraline and her castmates are actual dolls, figures that had to be moved against real (if computer-enhanced) backgrounds by human hands. For fans of the old Rankin-Bass holiday specials who've never quite been convinced by the shimmering gradients of computer-generated animation, this puppetry aspect of Coraline is deeply satisfying. While it's way more visually sophisticated than Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, it has a touch of that show's endearing wonkiness.
It's impossible to get into just why and how Coraline's last third falls apart without giving away too much of the story. But it's not revealing to say that Coraline's enchantment with the alternate universe needed a more gradual rate of decay for the shift to be convincing. When she discovers the real motivations of the other mother, the film abruptly turns from an allegory about childhood longing into a routine escape-from-the-bad-guy adventure (albeit one with fabulously nonroutine visuals, including a Matrix-like moment in which Coraline reaches the edges of the alternate universe and runs through a featureless, all-white no man's land). Moment by moment, the film is a font of pleasures, yet there's something about it that keeps the audience at an aesthetic remove. Like Coraline in the doppelgänger world, we swoon over all the neat stuff without ever making ourselves at home.
One last note: Coraline's PG rating should have come with an asterisk, specifying that it's up to each individual parent (or her psychoanalyst) to gauge whether her child is old enough to deal with the appallingly scary premise of a mother replaced by a fiendish, insatiable double bent on stealing her child's eyes. I'm 42, and I'm not sure I can handle that yet. Is there such a thing as PG-43?
Slate V: The critics on Coraline and other new releases