By Matthew Sorrento | February 7, 2009

In “Coraline,” there’s a dark fantasy just aching to get out – and not judging from the film’s kinship to “A Nightmare Before Christmas” alone. (Writer-director Henry Selick also made the earlier work.)

Alienated from her work-at-home parents (gardening writers who hate dirt) and annoyed by a doting geek of a neighbor, Coraline (voiced by Dakota Fanning) can’t find the inspiration to imagine something better. Adult viewers welcome her sympathy, while the adults on screen are outsiders, intruding upon the saner world of the kids. Though out of it, her parents do have some personality. Coraline’s mom (voiced by Teri Hatcher) cops an attitude like a MySpace video blogger, while her dad (John Hodgman) taps characters on the computer like a Morse code dispatcher.

At home she finds a porthole behind a painted-over door, and thus discovers her dream. At the other end appears a “bizarro” family and household, with the alternate versions of her parents (voiced by the same performers) blissful and having buttons for eyes. It is a surreal doll house opposing her drab home: the new one is filled with tasty eats, soothing sounds, and rich interior design. Mom never works, and dad grooves on the piano – though note that a player piano is really playing him.

And hence, an innocent’s wish fulfillment grows dark, and a “Twilight Zone-y,” heaven-is-really-hell aura arises in this adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s novel. Coraline’s visits to the “other” family end when she wakes in her real bed, making her dream world as substantial as Alice’s Wonderland. Yet, soon enough, the “other” mom’s harpy instincts appear. She and bizarro dad offer Coraline thread, needle, and her own two buttons. Their description of the transformation is curiously, eerily sublime – pain as an enlightening pleasure.

The result is Coraline’s early coming-of-age, a battle to return home. It turns out that the bad mama has locked away the now not-so-bad parents back in reality. It’s a lot of story just to tell young viewers that those mean folks at home could be worse – a bankable theme to fill Saturday matinees in tense times.

But “Coraline” is more about seeing the tale than what it tells. The film’s pioneering digital stop-motion technique – with the hardly imaginable use of digital puppets(!) – starts off with a bang, in an opening sequence of a doll (soon revealed to be modeled on Coraline) getting refashioned. The cloth getting sewn is wavy, almost like flesh, and thus the scene masters the ultimate goal of animation – a complete redefinition of an image from the tactile world. The characters move with the spirit of classic stop-motion, yet still glide along to distance any association that the older technology had to toys and clay molds.

Selick supports the principal players with a clownish Mr. Bobinsky (voiced by Ian McShane), who leads a mice performance that just may be the film’s show-stopper. . . that is, until near the end. Here “Coraline” lashes out a tribute to van Gogh’s “Starry Night” – the frame suggests oil on canvas while injecting glowing orbs in a mastery of inspiration by Mr. Selick. At the finale of this visual delight, every hired hand and technician also deserve acclaim.

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