Handmade, frightening, beautiful, and full of wonder, Coraline is one of the best movies you'll see this year. Like a much gentler Pan's Labyrinth, it is a horror movie for children, one which does not soften its chills with laughter, but never stoops to cheap thrills. It is a simple story told simply, stop-motion animation which does not hide its own seams.
Based on a story by the prolific (and now Newbery Medal-winning) Neil Gaiman, the film is set in an isolated house into which young Coraline Jones and her workaholic parents just moved. Her parents have little time for her, and so she is forced to go exploring. She discovers eccentric neighbors, a nearly bottomless well, and a nosy neighbor boy, as well as a secret door to a house just like hers, but better, nicer, entirely for her. In the other world, though, everyone has buttons for eyes, like a life-sized doll, and Coraline has to avoid being turned into a puppet herself, as she finally learns to appreciate the life she already has.
The story is very similar to the Gaiman-scripted MirrorMask, which was made into a visually stunning movie in its own right, as both share young female protagonists, parallel worlds with evil parallel mothers, an emphasis or obsession with puppets, toys, keys, and the pageantry of the stage and circus. It also recalls Hayao Miyazaki's mature work, Princess Mononoke and Spirited Away, animated films with young women at the lead that contain a gentle moral in their fantastic fairytale visuals.
These days, animated children's movies fall fairly neatly into two categories: Pixar movies, which are terrific, and everything else, which usually falls short. (In America, there are rarely any animated movies that aren't for kids, South Park and Team America excepted.) The reasons for Pixar's success are rather simple: their movies don't talk down to kids, but rather focus all their attention on telling their stories well, with no need for distractions like pop culture jokes, incongruous A-list talent, teenybop soundtracks, or any other of the other pitfalls shared by the Ice Ages and Shreks of the world.
Coraline works because it understands this. Director Henry Selick also helmed The Nightmare Before Christmas, so he knows his way around a scary children's story, not to mention stop-motion animation. Unlike Nightmare, Coraline doesn't leaven itself with laughs, and Tim Burton's beloved carnival of death and Halloween is replaced by Gaiman's love of the dark side of fairy tales. But it isn't too frightening. It's spooky, rather than genuinely chilling like Pan's Labyrinth. Though Coraline is rated PG, there's almost no actual violence. Instead it's the atmosphere itself that creeps, and the spider-like witch Coraline meets in the other world. The horror is more implied than explicit, and it wouldn't be inappropriate except for the very young.
The voice cast is small, but quite good; the actors are known, but not so well-known that the recognizability of their voice detracts from the character. In keeping with the Pixar theme, Pixar sculpter Jerome Ranft (and Nightmare Before Christmas collaborator) has a bit part in the voice cast. The parents are played by John Hodgman (the Daily Show contributor, restrained here) and Teri Hatcher; Keith David is a talking cat; and the eccentric neighbors are played by British actors Ian McShane, Dawn French and Jennifer Saunders. Less well known in this country, French and Saunders are a long-running British comedy duo, and their chemistry translates well.
The character models are incredibly detailed; someone watching the trailer could think the whole movie was done in CGI. But the slightly herky-jerky movements of the characters, whose motions are created by painstakingly setting every miniscule movement, moving every finger and whisker by hand, for every object in the shot, and photographing it frame by frame, remind the viewer of their earthbound origins. Though there are occasional CGI flourishes, the tangible feel makes the visual spectacle all the richer. And the action setpieces, in a garden shaped like Coraline's head, in a miniature mouse circus, in a gigantic theater, and in the house itself, are simply stunning.
The reward of animation is a world in which anything is possible, in which the fantastic and the mundane look equally real because they are made out of the same material. Few movies make better use of that promise, or of their medium, than Coraline.