In the opening scene of Henry Selick’s stop-motion Coraline, a pair of spindly hands rips open and remakes a little rag doll. The matter-of-factness with which the doll is turned inside-out and reassembled is made even more unsettling in 3-D, as the doll’s stuffing bursts richly forth from every seam. By the time the doll makes its second appearance, as a gift to the quirky and lonely young Coraline, the sense of dread is palpable.
It is the mark of Coraline’s greatness as a film that in a movie with so many trick elements (stop-motion, 3-D, Neil Gaiman), the story itself prevails over the form. Coraline (voiced skillfully by Dakota Fanning) is lonely in her family’s newly rented digs; her upstairs neighbor is a Russian giant with a mouse circus, her downstairs neighbors are a pair of dueling spinsters, and her parents are too busy working to pay Coraline any mind. The only person who has time for Coraline is the pesky Wybie, a preteen inventor who never lets Coraline get a word in edgewise.
It is totally understandable why Coraline goes into the little door in the wall seeking adventure; when she finds a warm welcome from her button-eyed Other Mother, it is totally understandable that she should make her way back. And, since this is a fairy tale, it is totally understandable that the third visit takes a very different turn. (Other Mother quickly becomes one of the most sinister nicknames in recent children’s fantasy.)
Coraline and her world are sharply illuminated by the stop-motion production. Some of this is because technology has developed apace with demand (Selick’s last stop-motion feature, The Nightmare Before Christmas, had a hero capable of 150 facial expressions; Coraline is capable of 20,000), but more effectively, it is a painstaking attention to the mundane details that frame Coraline’s dull existence. The kitchen in the Pink Palace is carefully painted in shades of flat, vomitous beige; her rain-soaked footsteps leave squelching footprints in the ground.
The cherry on this stop-motion sundae is, of course, the masterful use of 3-D. Historically (if 3-D can be considered old enough to have a history), the technique has been used as a gimmick to make frightening moments more visceral. The weapons fly right at you! Look out for the shark! Here it serves the story, immersing the audience in Coraline’s world; the most remarkable instance of it is the subtle, half-present shimmer of Coraline reflected in windows at night. The film is similarly haunting, lingering after the Scottie-dotted credits have rolled.
(A note as to this film’s suitability for children: at a recent screening, the only child in the audience, aged nine or ten, spent the movie’s 100-minute run time asking his mother in an increasingly loud and agitated voice, “What’s going to happen to her?” Parents, bring your children to this movie with care.)