Remember the wild moods and highs of childhood? The boredom; the thrill of discovery; the deep stench of fear? Those are the bone and sinew of Coraline, Henry Selick’s lovely and frightening stop-motion feature adaptation of the novella by Neil Gaiman.

Though Selick’s process of painstakingly moving and replacing models should be antithetical to any depiction of wonder and uncertainty, an alchemical process brings the creations to life. However unlikely, the manner in which this story is told is just as magical as the tale itself.

After Coraline (voiced by Dakota Fanning) moves to a new country home with her workaholic parents (Teri Hatcher and John Hodgman) she finds herself trapped in the house by sheets of rain. The discovery of a small, odd door leads the blue-haired girl to an amazing parallel world. There, her Other Mother caters to her every whim, and the new neighbors, odd and slightly repellent in real life, are fantastically vibrant.

That’s the simple ‘down the rabbit hole’ aspect of Coraline’s adventure (pointedly illustrated here by a long tunnel/birth canal between the parallel worlds) but there’s also an ugly side: her Other Mother extends the youngster an invitation to live permanently in her colorful fantasy. All she has to do is give up her human eyes and sew buttons in their place. “Black,” she’s told, “is traditional.”

Coraline is a heroine impetuous, brave and as tangibly real as you’d hope to see. There’s an endearing impulsiveness to her movements, near-gangly arms and legs making odd angles as her eyes narrow suspiciously at the marvels in her newfound playland.

That wariness makes her more familiar than most movie kids. She’s not dumb enough to believe the first wonder that presents itself, no matter how desperately she wants to embrace it. Dakota Fanning’s line readings present that attitude, as do Henry Selick and his animators. Though assisted by CGI (used mostly to remove extraneous metal armature and support rods) the sculpting and animation that create her are more lifelike than any computer-generated character. Pixar has been issued a new challenge.   

More delightful, at least to me, is the fidelity with which Selick captures Neil Gaiman’s distinctive voice. Though he’s made a few changes, notably by adding characters, Selick bottles Gaiman’s particular tone and deep understanding of the inner workings of story. He doesn’t push any detail too far — the horror of the Other Mother’s intent and nature; the real loneliness the girl feels among her real family; a cat that knows far too much — but neither does he pull any punches.

(The largest Selick addition is a strange boy who befriends Coraline. He doesn’t quite fit, but neither is he obtrusive enough to be worth a fuss.)

So Coraline is a cautionary tale of sorts about accepting an offer too good to be true, but it is also a yarn about games and puzzles that reflects the rules of faerie societies Gaiman presented in Sandman. The animation fits right in there, too, as it rapturously presents unearthly gardens, mechanical pianos, stuffed dogs and a theatre in which a pair of actresses, aged far beyond any point of physical appeal, play out an eternal rivalry.

In fact, I’d give quite a lot to see Selick given the time and funds to tackle Sandman‘s monumental storyline; if he’s given this much care in adapting one novella, I can only imagine the beauty and horror that would ensue if the same attention were paid to the Dreaming.

As Coraline tackles the problem of truly dealing with the realm behind her magic door, I was surprised by how unsettling and creepy the other world became, and enthralled by the dashes of beauty that shone between the slats of nightmare. The film is a clockwork marvel, an animation landmark, an ugly story for beautiful children.

8.9 out of 10

The other opinion: read Devin’s review!