One of my dark secrets is that I don’t care much for “The Nightmare Before Christmas,” the Tim Burton-produced, Henry Selick-directed Halloween favorite. Technically, the film is a wonder, with stop-motion animation that never fails to impress. As far as its story and characters are concerned, though: meh.
So I do not immediately convulse with excitement at the news that Selick (who also made the delightful “James and the Giant Peach”) has a new stop-motion production called “Coraline” in the works, and I swell with only a little bit of pride to know that it’s being made here in Portland. All that matters is what’s up there on the movie screen — and man alive, “Coraline” is a brilliant, twisted marvel.
Based on Neil Gaiman’s book and adapted by Selick, it is the story of a young girl named Coraline Jones (voice of Dakota Fanning) who has just moved with her parents, both nature writers, from Michigan to Ashland, Ore. Their new home is an isolated old house divided into three apartments, situated near the majestic forests and mountains of southern Oregon. Upstairs from the Joneses is Mr. Bobinsky (Ian McShane), a Russian acrobat; in the basement are retired actresses Miss Spink (Jennifer Saunders) and Miss Forcible (Dawn French), both elderly spinsters who bring out bowls of inedible hard candy when visitors stop by.
With her mother (Teri Hatcher) and father (John Hodgman) both absentmindedly focused on their work, Coraline is left to roam the house and its surroundings, bored and almost without playmates. Her one new friend is Wybie (Robert Bailey Jr.), the grandson of the apartment house’s landlady, and an icky boy. (You know how boys are icky.) Wybie finds a doll in his attic that looks like a miniature version of Coraline, so he gives it to her — and that’s when things start to get weird.
Through a wallpapered-over little door in her apartment, Coraline finds a portal to a world that looks just like this one, except better. She has an Other Mother and Other Father there, replicates of her birth parents but with sewed-on button eyes and far more attentive, indulgent personalities. They are everything a kid could imagine her parents to be. The alternate versions of Mr. Bobinsky and the old ladies are much more fun, too. The world through the little door is perfect!
It may not surprise you to learn, knowing Gaiman and Selick as you do, that the scenario proves to be one of those “be careful what you wish for” things, with “Twilight Zone”-style irony and several macabre touches that made me, a grown man with a college degree, squirm in my seat with giddy creeped-outedness. Nothing is horrifying or gross; it’s just … off. Warped. Weird. FUN. There’s a talking cat (voice of Keith David) that inhabits both realms, a piano that plays its player, grotesque circus performers, and all manner of dizzying, carnival-like delights. There is more imagination and invention on display here than in all the films of January put together, and it’s the kind of Halloween-ish whimsy that kids and adults can enjoy together.
I would be remiss if I didn’t also acknowledge the film’s stunning visuals. It’s being shown in 3D in some theaters — it’s the first stop-motion animated film to be shot that way — and you would do well to experience it in all three dimensions. Selick’s team used countless models, puppets, and miniatures to create the characters and their elaborate worlds, which come to life in astonishingly vivid detail. Stop-motion photography proves to be perfect for this story, as it gives everything a surreal, dreamlike quality that would be hard to achieve with live-action or even traditional animation. Fans of “Nightmare Before Christmas” can keep it — “Coraline” is my new perennial favorite.
A- (1 hr., 40 min.; )