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Outside of animation-fanboy circles, few people know Henry Selick's name. Ask a random handful of strangers who directed 1993's The Nightmare Before Christmas, and you'll probably hear them talk about being huge fans of Tim Burton. True, Burton conceived and produced that film, but it was Selick, the meticulously crafty stop-motion animator and indeed the director, who actually brought it to life. Paradoxically, his is such an uncommon vision that collaboration has a way of rendering it nearly anonymous.
What's more, Selick's subsequent feature-length efforts his literally and figuratively half-animated take on Roald Dahl's book James and the Giant Peach, in 1996, and his easily forgotten box-office misfire, Monkeybone, in 2001 rather bitterly attest to the reputation-leeching results of studio-imposed creative compromises.
But things should change for Selick with Coraline, his beautifully realized and intensely imaginative adaptation of the beloved Neil Gaiman novel, which reveals the filmmaker at the top of a game that's very much his own. Coraline also has the distinction of being the first hi-def stop-motion animated feature filmed entirely in stereoscopic 3D. For the fanboys, it's a milestone; for everybody else, it's a terrifically entertaining movie.
Somewhere in the rural hills of the fertile yet gloomy Pacific Northwest, the young, precocious Coraline Jones (voiced by Dakota Fanning) and her neglectfully preoccupied parents (Teri Hatcher and John Hodgman) move into a flat in a creaky old house. Although her new neighbors include a pair of voluble, elderly actresses (Dawn French and Jennifer Saunders), a Russian acrobat (Ian McShane) who's training "circus mice," and a shy but nosy boy (Robert Bailey Jr.) with a vaguely perturbing pet cat, Coraline can't help but feel lonely and bored.
So it comes as both a wonder and a relief when she discovers that the small, papered-over door in the living room wall is actually a portal to an alternate version of her life. In that vividly Oz-like other world, Coraline meets her "Other Mother" and "Other Father," who seem both more interested in her and more interesting. OK, yes, they have buttons for eyes and that's a little spooky-weird, but whatever she wants they'll be glad to provide even if she doesn't know she wants it. Like dad's gorgeous outdoor garden, landscaped to look like Coraline's face, for instance.
Things are different here, all right. In this enchanted landscape, the neighbor boy's cat even talks (with the voice of Keith David). Most of what he has to say, however, is worrisome, and just as Coraline begins to discover that her other world isn't so appealing after all, she also discovers that she might be trapped in it forever.
Of course, her first view of that bright, billowy tunnel through the wall, unfurling before her like the famous dizzying staircase in Vertigo, should have been fair warning. That the vision is so dazzling but also so unsettling is exactly the idea, and what's most satisfying and impressive about Coraline is that Selick so consistently achieves this unity of tale and technique. The 3D isn't a Super Bowl-commercial-style gimmick here, but instead a savory story element, used with restraint and in artfully deliberate contrast to the grounded tactility of his signature stop-motion animation.
Coraline might not have been Selick's story to begin with, but that shouldn't keep it from making his name.