Outside of animation-fanboy circles, not many people know Henry Selick’s name. Go ask a random handful of strangers who directed 1993’s The Nightmare Before Christmas, and you’ll probably hear a lot of people tell you what huge Tim Burton fans they are. True, Burton conceived and produced that film, but it was Selick, the meticulously crafty stop-motion animator and director, who brought it to life and made it so fan-worthy. Paradoxically, his is such a singular vision that collaboration has a way of rendering it almost anonymous.
That may change with Coraline, Selick’s beautifully realized adaptation of the beloved Neil Gaiman novel, which has the distinction of being the first hi-def stop-motion animated feature conceived and filmed entirely in 3D. For the fanboys, it’s a milestone; for everybody else, it’s a terrifically entertaining movie.
Is this the way to the lobby? A girl ventures far from home—and normalcy—in the inventively animated Coraline.
The young, precocious Coraline Jones (voiced by Dakota Fanning) and her neglectfully preoccupied parents (Teri Hatcher and John Hodgman) move into one flat in an old house in the rural hills of the fertile yet gloomy Pacific Northwest. Although her new neighbors include a pair of voluble, elderly actresses (Dawn French and Jennifer Saunders), a Russian acrobat (Ian McShane) who’s training mice to be in a circus, and, from down the hill, a shy but nosy boy (Robert Bailey, Jr.) of about her own age with an unusual pet cat, 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 own life. In that vividly Oz-like other world, Coraline meets her “Other Mother” and “Other Father,” who seem at once more interesting to her and more interested in her. Yes, they have buttons for eyes and that’s a little weird, but whatever she wants they’ll be glad to provide. Even if she doesn’t know she wants it. Take, for example, the gorgeous outdoor garden, landscaped to look like Coraline’s face.
The neighbor boy’s cat shows up here, too, and here he can talk (with the voice of Keith David). What he has to say, however, is worrisome, and just as Coraline begins to discover that her other world isn’t so appealing after all, she also discovers that she might be trapped there.
But then, her first view of that billowy passageway through the wall, unfurling like the famous staircase shot in Vertigo, was fair warning. What’s most impressive about Coraline is that Selick achieves such unity of technique and material. The 3D isn’t a gimmick here, but a savory story element, deliberately contrasting the grounded tactility of stop-motion animation. That the vision is so spectacularly dazzling but also so unsettling is exactly the idea. Coraline may belong to Neil Gaiman, but it could make Henry Selick’s name.