Remember The Nightmare Before Christmas? The holiday classic is invariably credited to its producer and story writer Tim Burton, but the film was actually directed by New Jersey native Henry Selick, an animator on Pete's Dragon and The Fox and the Hound who met Burton when they both worked at Disney in the '80s. Selick finally returns to the world of stop-motion animation once again, which he used solely in both Nightmare and the 1996 Roald Dahl adaptation James and the Giant Peach, with Coraline, another adaptation of a cryptic children's fable, this one written by literary goth overlord Neil Gaiman.
Like Alice in Wonderland reconfigured for David Lynch fans, this eerie-yet-elegant tale sets its sights on the blue-haired, oddly-named girl who gives the film its title. Voiced with energy and outre charm by Dakota Fanning, Coraline is the only child of a pair of Michigan-alum parents (Teri Hatcher and John Hodgman) who write garden catalogues as their daughter explores the dire tundra outside their new home. Prompted by curiosity and ongoing rows over mom's bad casserole and drab taste in clothing, the parilous scamp ultimately unlocks a small door and finds herself in a world where the land outside glows like Christmas lights, her Other Father is a buoyant inventor, and her Other Mother (both voiced by the same players) always cooks a luxurious feast. The catch: Everyone, including the neighbors and their pets, has black buttons for eyes.
Though a few of the more perverse concepts from Gaiman's book have been smoothed-out, his knack for dark and lively imagery has been translated with gravitas by Selick, who by now should be the obvious candidate to hand over any and all Dr. Seuss or Shel Silverstein projects to. Despite a worn-out message (the grass is always greener/be careful what you wish for), Selick's vision is lean, funny and a lot of fun to watch in all its big-screen 3D splendor. The visual scheme gets even more arresting when Other Mother turns into a skin-and-bone, humpbacked witch who kidnaps Coraline's real parents, sending all the inventive nuances into overdrive as our young heroine attempts to save her parents from the other world and herself from being black-buttoned.
In a post-Wall-E animation market, a film must come armed with insight into the world at large, and Coraline has some solid ruminations on parenting, individuality, and, most flagrantly, the mother-daughter bond. Mostly, however, it just knocks your eyes out of their sockets. The voice acting is solid, too. Ian McShane does dependable work as the Russian who runs a mouse circus upstairs, and Coraline's downstairs neighbors (Jennifer Saunders and Dawn French) offer a grand performance in an opera house full of Scottish terriers. There's also Keith David as a prophetic black cat who follows Coraline around.
Right now, one has to doubt that Coraline will ever be the sort of success Nightmare eventually became. There isn't enough blatant marketability and the film isn't nearly as daring as Selick's debut, although a healthy base of too-young-for-Juno tweens could be well within the film's cult reach. Still, with Pixar and Dreamworks' next projects months away, Coraline keeps the welcome resurgence of mildly-intelligent, strangely-topical animated features rolling.
The cake is not a lie.