Henry Selick previously directed "The Nightmare Before Christmas" and "James and the Giant Peach" for producer Tim Burton, and the darkness that permeates "Coraline" definitely calls to mind Burton's trademark twisted sensibility.
Sure, "Coraline" is wildly imaginative, distinctly detailed and painstakingly rendered. (Puppets take a long time to manipulate — 74 seconds of footage required a week of production.) It has its silly moments, such as the performance of an elaborate rodent circus, and blessedly, the three-dimensional effects are only reach-out-and-grab-you gimmicky a few times — mostly, they provide texture and perspective.
But there's no lightness to the adventures in "Coraline"; they feel overstuffed and airless. What whimsy there is too often seems labored and smothers the story. And the movie might actually be too scary for many children, especially toward its thunderous climax. (Heck, it's disturbing off the top, when a doll gets disemboweled and reconstructed.)
Selick also wrote the screenplay, based on Neil Gaiman's best-seller about a little girl who becomes trapped in a parallel version of her world. Having just moved from Michigan to Oregon and feeling bored and lonely, 11-year-old Coraline Jones (voiced with gusto by Dakota Fanning) is thrilled to discover a secret door in the living room of the dreary boarding house where she lives with her parents (Teri Hatcher and John Hodgman), who are too busy writing gardening-catalogue copy to pay attention to her.
Once Coraline crawls through a long, spooky corridor, on the other end she finds a home that looks just like hers, only it's welcoming and vibrant. Dad cheerily writes music and tends to the flowers in the backyard, which arrange themselves to form her face. The neighbors — a pair of over-the-hill stage actresses (Jennifer Saunders and Dawn French) and a self-serious Russian circus performer (Ian McShane) — aren't odd but playfully entertaining. And the woman preparing scrumptious goodies for her in the kitchen — the Other Mother, she calls herself — is warm and nurturing. That is, until her psychotically possessive tendencies take over.
Oh, yeah — one more thing about her that's a little weird. She has black buttons instead of eyes. So does the Other Father (both characters are voiced by Hatcher and Hodgman). And after a few visits, they suggest that maybe Coraline might like to sew some black-button eyes onto her face, too, and join them forever. And ever. And ever.
Coraline gets some help in trying to escape this increasingly terrifying world from a talking cat (voiced by the smooth Keith David) and a goofy neighbor boy named Wybie (Robert Bailey Jr.), a character Selick created for the script. (He's an awkward and unnecessary addition.) But the Other Mother is a frighteningly formidable match, and Hatcher voices her with icy menace.
If children — little girls, in particular — take anything away from "Coraline," hopefully it's the film's message of ingenuity and self-reliance, and not nightmares. Or, worse yet, boredom.
"Coraline," a Focus Features release, is rated PG for thematic elements, scary images, some language and suggestive humor. Running time: 100 minutes. Two and a half stars out of four.