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Coraline has been brought to the screen by Henry Selick, the man who directed The Nightmare Before Christmas and James and the Giant Peach . Once again Selick uses stop motion animation to tell his tale but this time he enhances the look with Real 3D. This choice of 3D here is less about gimmicky tricks like pick axes swinging in My Bloody Valentine 3D . Instead, the 3D is used more as a means of bringing the animation to more vivid life throughout the story and not just for punctuation. It's refreshing to see the technology in service of the story instead of the other way around. I hope that this is where the future of 3D lies and not in having people point at the audience or throw things in the direction of the camera.

Photo caption:

Coraline (Focus Features)

The story comes from the vivid imagination of Neil Gaiman (creator of Stardust and Sandman among others) and involves a young girl named Coraline (voiced by Dakota Fanning). Coraline has just moved into a new house with her parents (Teri Hatcher, John Hodgman), who both work from home on their own catalog business. Consequently, Coraline feels a bit ignored at home and wishes that her parents paid more attention to her and were more fun. But as the posters warn, be careful what you wish for.

Coraline ends up passing through a door to a parallel universe of sorts where she finds another set of parents. They are exactly what she wishes for: more fun and more attentive. But Coraline notices one disturbing difference, they have buttons for eyes. This leads to a series of increasingly unnerving discoveries that will require Coraline to call upon all the courage and cleverness she can muster.

Coraline has all the classic elements of a children's tale: a scrappy heroine who learns to depend on herself and her skills; fantastical places filled with strange creatures; an evil villain; and a journey of self-discovery. But in this case it's wrapped up in a package that combines equal parts Edward Gorey and Tim Burton, and The Wizard of Oz and Alice in Wonderland . From Oz we get parallel sets of characters and a new appreciation for the simple pleasures of going back home; from Alice we get the sense of going through the looking glass to a strange world and a series of encounters that test our young heroine.

Photo caption:

Coraline (Focus Features)

Author Neil Gaiman has created a story that aims as much at young adults (and smart younger readers) as it is at grown-ups who still enjoy using their imaginations. It may be too dark for some little ones but it's a good film for kids to see with parents so that any questions or fears can be addressed. But a little bit of horror can be good and Coraline spins its tale with clever imagination. Selick captures the impatience and disappointment of his title character as she repeatedly tries to engage her parents in fun and games but with no luck. The way Coraline plays with the door or explores the house is exactly how curious kids behave when bored and desperately trying to entertain themselves.

While the studio may want to attract young audiences, Selick refuses to condescend to them as so many animated films do. The storytelling is simple enough to engage them but sophisticated enough to not bore them. In Coraline we get a heroine who can squash bugs with her hands and not make a big deal about, who can be sulky when ignored by her parents, and resourceful when needs be. She is neither cloyingly cute nor gratingly smart-alecky. She is, despite the bizarre circumstances she encounters, a rather typical kid, and that's refreshing. It's also the least annoying Dakota Fanning has been and maybe that's because we only get her voice. In films like War of the Worlds I was hoping the aliens would kill her but she is slowly maturing into a less mechanical kid star that acts by the numbers. It may also be that Selick works well with her and gets her to perform with less affectations.

Coraline (rated PG for thematic elements, scary images, some language and suggestive humor) may not find the long-lasting cult fandom of The Nightmare Before Christmas but it serves up a more challenging and darker hued tale. The animation is also bold and vivid and filled with carefully rendered details from the insect furniture to the rat circus.

Companion viewing: Corpse Bride, The Nightmare Before Christmas, Chicken Run, The Wizard of Oz

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