Dir. Henry Selick
(PG) ★ ★ ★ ½

From Henry Selick, the director of The Nightmare Before Christmas, one of the best animated films of the last twenty years, the stop-motion animated film Coraline tells a tale of childhood fears with a Grimm’s Fairy Tales bent, with macabre details, splendidly ghoulish production design by Selick himself, and a story that is whimsical but with sharper edges than you’ll find on most youth-oriented entertainments. Its dangers feel genuine and aren’t sanitized for general consumption. No, it’s not No Country for Old Men, but it ain’t Madagascar either.

The setup is familiar. Coraline (voiced by Dakota Fanning) is a preteen whose inattentive parents move her into a big, spooky house where she is left to her own devices. They’re writing a gardening catalog, but they’re too busy writing to use their garden. They’re too busy for a lot of things, and a lonely Coraline makes do counting windows and doors, including a mysterious door hidden behind the wallpaper. It leads to a parallel world that gives her everything she wants but isn’t what it appears to be.

On the other side of the door, her “Other Mother” cooks gourmet food and gives her affection, but she is a sinister creature whose features become more angular and severe as her true nature is gradually revealed. She and everyone else in this parallel world have buttons for eyes, and she intends for Coraline to join them.

The film’s theme is apparent: be thankful for your family because perfect parents are a dangerous illusion. But the real draw is the imagery, which captures the imagination. It’s the small details that delighted me: stuffed dogs in angel wings hung on a wall, a man composed of rats and women composed of taffy, the peeling of the walls of a false reality, the snapdragons in a mystical garden, a tractor in the shape of a praying mantis, and more. It is a film of great visual invention. It surprises the eyes. Most importantly it respects its young audience; in this age of WALL-E, it recognizes that animation can contain treasures beyond the obligatory demands of a kids’ movie.

NOTE: I saw the film in two dimensions, but it is also being exhibited in 3D, which of course means we’re given the requisite scenes of objects or characters flying towards the camera. I always find such scenes an unnecessary distraction, whether I’m watching in 3D or not. They exist only to get the studio’s money’s worth from the technology. One day Hollywood will produce a film composed entirely of things flying at the camera. Perhaps then it’ll be out of their system.