[Screen It]

(2009) (voices of Dakota Fanning, Teri Hatcher) (PG)

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Animated Fantasy/Horror: A lonely and bored preteen discovers a tunnel in her new house that leads to an alternate reality where most everything is the same, save for attentive parents who have buttons for eyes and want her to join them there.
Coraline Jones (voice of DAKOTA FANNING) is an 11-year-old girl who's just moved away from her friends and comfortable life into the Pink Palace Apartments, situated in an old house, with her parents, Mel (voice of TERI MATCHER) and Charlie (voice of JOHN HODGMAN). Since they're preoccupied by writing text for a gardening magazine, Coraline is bored silly, especially since her mom won't let her go out and plant seeds in her garden, what with it raining and all.

The only other kid around, Wybie (voice of ROBERT BAILY, JR.), the grandson of the home's owner, is too weird to her to be her friend. The other tenants, former actresses turned eccentric spinsters April Spink (voice of DAWN FRENCH) and Miriam Forcible (voice of JENNIFER SAUNDERS) as well as retired but still active circus performer Mr. Bobinski (voice of IAN McSHANE) are also weird, but in a different way.

It seems the only one she identifies with is a new doll she's just received that looks like her. When it disappears, Coraline discovers it by a small hidden door in the wall that when opened reveals it's been bricked shut. That night, however, Coraline follows a mouse there to discover a tunnel that leads to an alternate world with an identical house.

Even the same people are there, albeit in somewhat altered form, including her Other Mother (voice of TERI HATCHER) and Other Father (voice of JOHN HODGMAN), as well as Wybie's feline, The Cat (voice of KEITH DAVID), that can speak here and is the only living creature not to possess buttons for eyes.

Save for the latter, Coraline thinks this is a perfect world, especially due to her ultra-attentive and eager to please parents. Accordingly, she's upset when she wakes up the next morning back in her old home with her distracted and busy parents. Yet, she manages to make it back to the other side again, finding it even more enticing than before. The only drawback is that Other Mother says they'll have to replace Coraline's eyes with buttons. From that point on, the girl must decide which world to choose, a point made easier by developments that turn more sinister as they unfold.

OUR TAKE: 7.5 out of 10
For nearly all of recorded history, most people had lots of kids. Beyond the benefit that provided for working on farms, increasing the likelihood of family genes continuing down the line for generations, and having built-in babysitters once the first batch of offspring was old enough for such duties, there was another plus. And that was having someone for the kids to play with, thus freeing up the parents from being both guardian and playmate.

But with farms shrinking, the availability of daycare and the diminishing importance of royal genes, family sizes have been shrinking, with many now sporting just one child. While there are far more diversions available for such kids nowadays than a generation ago (pre anything requiring some sort of computer technology), there's still the issue of who lone children play with when not in school, are new in town, or are beyond walking distance of others.

The answer is that many single children end up turning to their imagination for company, be that as imaginary friends or entire worlds into which they disappear and become immersed. At first glance, it would appear that's the case for Coraline Jones, the plucky protagonist of the delightful and fun movie named after her, "Coraline."

She's an 11-year-old who's just moved away from her friends and old life into a large apartment of an old house with her gardening catalogue writer parents. Bored out of her mind and more than a bit ticked that they're too busy hunched over their computers to pay much attention to her, she ends up finding a small door that opens into a tunnel that leads her into a doppelganger of her own home.

The only difference is that her parents there are cheery, attentive and have plenty of time for her. It all seems perfect, save for the fact that they have buttons for eyes. Faster than she can imagine she's stumbled into "Benjamin Button 2," however, she wakes up back in her boring bed, home and life, with her parents responding to her imaginative tale with little more than a distracted "yeah, yeah."

While that might sound weird, the old adage of "you ain't seen nothing yet" certainly applies. And that's because the film comes from the imaginative mind, eye and, both the metaphorical and literal hands of Henry Selick, the creative genius behind the terrific if macabre holiday musical, "The Nightmare Before Christmas." Like that pic, this one's been created in the painstaking and decidedly old-fashioned but glorious stop-motion animation process (where miniature figures are moved a fraction of an inch, filmed, moved again and so on), this time designed and enabled for eye-popping 3-D.

The result is a fun, engaging and visually imaginative flick that should entertain adults as much or maybe even more than kids, although younger ones in the latter group might just find the third act -- when the tone turns more sinister, as in any good fairy tale -- a little (or a lot) intense and/or scary.

If anything, it's likely the most unique mainstream film you'll probably see all year, and has to have a lock on the front runner position for best animated movie come awards season a year from now. With fun and creative touches of all sizes, big and small, scattered throughout the pic, the movie is a delight from start to finish.

Adapted from Neil Gaiman's 2002 horror novella of the same name by Selick the screenwriter, the tale is something of a mixture of "Alice in Wonderland" and "The Wizard of Oz," where a fantastical world is filled with both new (and strange and odd and scary) characters as well as ones somewhat altered from their usual selves in their original setting.

Without ever saying it outright, the "Oz" type theme is that there's no place like home. And just like the Wicked Witch in that famous tale, there's a villainess here who's just as scary, especially once you really get to know her and fall into her web of deceit.

Vocal work is terrific from all involved, with Dakota Fanning excelling as the spunky protagonist, and the likes of Teri Hatcher, John Hodgman, Keith David, Ian McShane and the comedy duo Dawn French and Jennifer Saunders all having fun with their characters.

But it's Selick's overall vision that makes the film a blast to behold. While the visuals have the depth, clarity and detail of a standard computer animated film, it's fun to see the use of stop-motion animation, a dying breed of filmmaking kept alive in the mainstream mostly by Selick and Tim Burton.

And just about any positive critique of their 1993 collaboration certainly applies here. Unique, unusual and highly entertaining, "Coraline" is terrific, old-fashioned storytelling told in an imaginative fashion, sure to entertain just about everyone who steps foot into its world. The film rates as a 7.5 out of 10.

Reviewed January 22, 2009 / Posted February 6, 2009

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