The Chilly World of Coraline

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Photo courtesy of Focus Features

Coraline with "Other Father" in Henry Selick's stop-motion animated 3D movie

They're like the wanna-be dudes compelled to sport RayBan Wayfarers at every candlelight soiree. On three of the past four weekends, Americans have been obliged to wear 3D glasses as essential entertainment accessories. My Bloody Valentine sent pokers and pickaxes jutting out of the screen; the Monsters vs. Aliens commercial shown Sunday during the Super Bowl featured a profusion of protrusions. And here, on a more elevated plane, is Henry Selick's Coraline, the first stop-motion animation feature shot in the process. (It's also being shown in a "flat" version.) There's so much 3D around — with plenty more coming this year — that "four eyes" is no longer an insult; it's become a crucial movie demographic.

Coraline (pronounced core-align), which Selick adapted from a kids' book by graphic novelist Neil Gaiman, begins with a needle thrust in the viewer's eye. Mostly, though, 3D is used to heighten the picture's antirealistic, otherworldly mood. The illusion of depth is boldly stylized; the scene of a front yard or a kitchen will be a series of flat surfaces, like the planes in a pop-up picture book. This is the animated film as art film. Coraline doesn't try to ingratiate; it just looms, like a cemetery gate, daring curious souls to tiptoe in and fend for themselves.

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That's what the movie's heroine, Coraline Jones (voiced by Dakota Fanning) must do. Newly arrived in Oregon from Michigan with her mother (Teri Hatcher) and father (John Hodgman), she feels ignored by her stay-at-home, workaholic writer parents. Father, hunched over his PC, is a mild, preoccupied sort; but Mother has no milk-drop of the maternal instinct. She speaks to Coraline in the curt, distracted voice that a stern boss would use on a cleaning woman who had entered her office during a conference call. Mother is efficient, officious, utterly joyless; you couldn't make her smile if you handed her over to the Guantanamo tickling team.

Left on her own, Coraline wanders through the huge old house, now divided into several large apartments, to meet the other residents: Mr. Bobinsky (Ian McShane), an eight-foot-tall blue Russian who runs a circus of more-or-less trained mice; and Miss Spink (Jennifer Saunders) and Miss Forcible (Dawn French), a pair of venerable theatrical troupers endlessly recounting their glory days in the music hall. Coraline also meets a boy her age, Whybe Lovet (Robert Bailey Jr.), the grandson of the grande dame who owns the place, and a talking cat (Keith David) with dark secrets he eventually spills.

For Coraline, the big secret is behind a small locked door. Like Lewis Carroll's Alice and the Narnia children (and, by now, far too many tyke heroes of fairy tales), Coraline goes through the doorway into another realm. It's a long, oddly uterine passage that leads to an apartment exactly like her new home, and with identical parents — except for two things. The weird news: Other Mother and Other Father have buttons for eyes. The better news: these cheerful folks instantly dote on the little girl as if she were the center of their universe. How lovely to see you! Have some cake! Let us tuck you into bed. Coraline thinks she's lucked into paradise: that she's escaped the loneliness and numbing drudgery of real life, where she's either an obstacle or invisible, and discovered her mirror home, her ideal parents, an Opposite World where she feels wanted, pampered and, for a change, happy.

"You probably think this other world is a dream come true," the Cat tells Coraline. "But it's not." He's right. In the deeply, darkly conservative spirit of most fairy tales, which are not adventures but horror stories, Coraline will find that all those sweets and sweet words are simply fattening her up for the kill, like Gretel in the gingerbread house. And Other Mother is worse than a Stepford mom. She's... well, we'll just say she's very bad, and has been so for a very long time. Almost as nefarious as her plans for her new recruit is the poison she pours in the girl's ear, suggesting that Coraline's real parents may have permanently abandoned her. "Perhaps they became bored of you," Sham Mom says, "and ran away to France." Shivery thought: that's right — her parents are the restless young couple in Revolutionary Road, and Coraline is the child they disposed of. She's dead and doesn't know it.

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