EmptyJust when it appeared adult themes, in such films as "Mary and Max" and "$9.99," were going to run away with stop-motion animation, up pops Henry Selick ("Tim Burton's The Nightmare Before Christmas"). Not only is his charming "Coraline" a terrific children's story, adapted from a novel by Neil Gaiman, but it's also the first stop-motion feature made in 3-D. If Focus Features can bring in mainstream audiences with its marketing, "Coraline" could become a solid family hit.
Gaiman's fanciful tale takes on the classical "grass is always greener" theme within the context of an old and mysterious house. Coraline Jones (voiced by Dakota Fanning) is an 11-year-old newly moved into the Pink Palace with her busy parents (Teri Hatcher and John Hodgman). Unfortunately, no one seems to have any time for her. Even the moving boxes remain unpacked, and the family's sparse furniture barely inhabits the rooms.
The other tenants are an eccentric lot. There's a small, talkative boy named Wybie Lovat (Robert Bailey Jr.), a scruffy cat, two aging British actresses (Jennifer Saunders and Dawn French) and a Russian circus performer (Ian McShane). None succeeds in jolting Coraline out of her doldrums, though.
Then she discovers a secret door. She climbs through a long passageway into an alternate reality of the Pink Palace. Mother and Father are warm and attentive here. Mom, who never cooks, tends a hot stove bursting with savory goodies, while Dad, instead of writing, is composing music. But Coraline knows her real dad doesn't write music. Then the eccentric neighbors perform all sorts of amazing vaudeville acts. And the cat (Keith David) talks! The only upsetting thing about this Other Mother and Other Father is that instead of eyes, they have black buttons like dolls.
Coraline enjoys return visits to this alternate existence, which she swiftly determines is better than her real one. Before making a choice between the two, though, the Other Mother shows her true colors: She not only schemes to keep Coraline in the alternate world, but her real parents disappear. Now it's up to Coraline to save herself and her family.
The intensity of lost parents and later three ghost children in the alternate Pink Palace might frighten the very young. Otherwise, this is a marvelous family story, tapping into all sorts of childhood dreams and nightmares involving Mommy, monsters and heroic youngsters. Selick's imaginative sets and puppets are in perfect pitch with Gaiman's fantasy. The 3-D effects aren't overdone but used intelligently to make this world come brilliantly to life.
Perhaps it's me, but those 3-D glasses still weigh somewhat heavily on the bridge of the nose. But it's a small price to pay for such smart family entertainment.