Critics love Coraline, the first stop-motion animated film shot in 3-D, but warn that this dark, eerie adaptation of Neil Gaiman's young adult novel may leave kids and adults needing a therapy session.
Director Henry Selick (who also directed The Nightmare Before Christmas) adapted the screenplay for Coraline from Gaiman's book, a darker, more twisted version of Alice in Wonderland. Dakota Fanning voices the title character, an 11-year-old girl who has just moved to a new house with her inattentive parents (Teri Hatcher and John Hodgman). One day she discovers a door that leads to a parallel universe populated by happier, more affectionate versions of her parents and other amusements, like talking flowers, nightly circus performances, and delicious home cooked dinners. The only problem is that everyone in the alternate universe has buttons for eyes. Soon, things take a turn for the macabre and the Other Mother offers to let Coraline stay with her forever, but only if she'll agree to sew buttons over her eyes too. At this point, children watching the movie will be totally traumatized, and adults can revisit the mother/daughter rivalries and smothering that psychologically damaged them during childhood. Below, the critics weigh in.
The 3-D aspects of Coraline are unusually subtle. Now and then stuff is flung off the screen into your face, but the point is not to make you duck or shriek. Instead Mr. Selick uses the technology to make his world deeper and more intriguing. And of course the stop-motion technique he uses, based on sculptured figures rather than drawn images, is already a kind of three-dimensional animation. The glasses you put on are thus not a gimmick but an aid to seeing what's already there.
This simple, horrifying operation - foreshadowed in the haunting opening title sequence - unlocks a cellarful of psychological implications. It would be too simple to say that the door in the wall leads directly to the unconscious. Mr. Selick is hardly a doctrinaire Freudian, but he does grasp the intimate connection between fairy tales and the murky, occult power of longing, existential confusion and misplaced desire. Coraline explores the predatory implications of parental love - that other mother is a monster of misplaced maternal instinct - but is grounded in the pluck and common sense of its heroine, who is resilient, ingenious and magically real.
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.
It's gorgeous to watch in all its dazzling stop-motion animation splendor, but the wizardry of Coraline is more to be admired than enthusiastically embraced. This animated fantasy ... is a visual marvel, but it's uneven in its story. The narrative lacks focus. Still, its exquisite images have an undeniable whimsical appeal.
Selick — who also wrote the screenplay — has intensified some of Gaiman's original themes, in addition to introducing a few overtly Freudian elements. This Coraline suggests some of the ways parents try to hold onto us, to keep us from growing up and therefore leaving them forever. It also flirts with the insidious rivalries that can crop up between mothers and daughters. (When Coraline learns that her Other Mother's intentions aren't entirely selfless, she says in astonishment, "Mothers don't eat daughters!" But sometimes, at least in fairy tales and in parts of Southern California, they may wish they could, as a way of preserving their own youth and beauty.)
The deepest virtues of "Coraline" are dark. This seemingly innocuous 3-D animation presents a grim vision of the modern family - as something to escape from - and shows the imagination as something too terrifying and self-consuming to offer refuge. That the movie does all this from within the confines of the children's-film genre makes it all the more eerie and unconsciously evocative.
Coraline is a querulous child, about as adorable as a skin rash, bossy with friends and demanding with her parents. Dakota Fanning voices Coraline and makes her even more unpleasant than the script demands. The idea of little girls throughout America actually identifying with this animated character is perhaps the scariest thing about the movie.
For all its visual delights, however, "Coraline" remains more an engaging spectacle than a connective drama. That is chiefly because of the writing. Director-writer Henry Selick doesn't reach for the kind of universality that would enrich the movie. It's a shame because Fanning's performance is the movie's most emotionally persuasive element. Her assured modulations, from cheeky to sweet, from bored to anguished, should have been part of a bigger, deeper movie. Unfortunately, the screenplay is one humanistic rewrite away from realizing that.
Good news for family psychiatrists across the land: Coraline is opening today, which means on Monday they'll have a whole new clientele of traumatized young children whose parents saw the PG rating and thought this was the latest Kung Fu Panda. It is not. A darkly invigorating stop-motion tour down the rabbit hole of childhood anxieties, "Coraline" is a movie only Wednesday Addams could love. Well, Wednesday and anyone who loves her; if you have a 10-and-up who's drawn to alt-comics, smart books, dark clothing, and general pop culture subversion, the movie will be his or her Wonderland. (That age group includes grown-ups, of course.)
The Other Mother is eventually revealed to Coraline (and us) as the evil harridan all teenage girls know their moms to be right after they've slammed the bedroom door, but there's a pathos to the older woman's neediness that's unexpectedly moving. Better, Coraline's real mother is proved to be just that: real, flawed, loving.