Dakota Fanning voices the main character in <em>Coraline</em>.

Coraline‘s title character first enters a parallel fantasy universe through a little bricked-over door in her new house-a creepy Victorian split into apartments in a rainy rural setting-during the dead of night, following a couple strangely mutated mice. Later, the heroine of this startlingly beautiful animated 3D film re-enters reality after falling asleep in her fantastic home, a wonder-filled land where the denizens-including her alternative parents-have buttons instead of eyes. A little girl, three rows behind me matter-of-factly declared: “She just had a dream!” loud enough for most of the Arlington audience to hear (and laugh). But later on, after Coraline re-enters her “other” world and can’t seem to find her way back to reality, all the children in the theater were silent.

The best part of this movie is its commitment to making the experience unbelievably spectacular-there’s little in cinematic history to match the dancing mice sequence, for instance. More importantly, it means to stay creepy. Like the very best children’s movies, The Wizard of Oz, Pinocchio, even Goonies, greatness lies in an implied threat. Coraline isn’t dreaming, yet her life depends on finding a way back to normalcy.

Some of this creep factor comes from author Neil Gaiman’s peculiar brand of wonder. The English-born author of the film’s source material frequently creates fantasy worlds not as Middle Earth-type epics, or even as magical realism metaphors, but more often as alluring escapes that turn out to contain as much evil as the real world. It’s true of Stardust (2007), where hags would corrupt a falling star. And it’s equally true of Coraline, where the young protagonist escapes into a universe where she’s apparently more appreciated. It seems that otherworld love is literally imprisoning, though.

Movie lovers need to see this film. It’s the first stop-action animated feature shot in 3D, and it ranges from subtly gorgeous to startling. (Stay ’til the end of the credits.) A lot of movies are merely illustrated novels-only as visual as service requires. Coraline is a feast of cinematic pleasure, a party hosted on a giant screen, though sometimes scarier than children’s dreams.


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