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Sweet Coraline.

Sigh…I’m running well behind on reviews again. Nevertheless, if you have the slightest amount of interest in Henry Selick’s exquisitely crafted stop-motion adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s Coraline, I highly recommend it. Made with as much care and attention to detail as the best of Pixar (or earlier Selick projects such as Nightmare Before Christmas and James and the Giant Peach), Selick’s clever Coraline is a children’s fable that moves with purpose, bristles with dark humor, and snaps together with satisfying, text-adventure logic. Like Dahl, Carroll, del Toro, and Rowling, Selick and Gaiman get that kids have more of an appetite for the unsettling and creepy than they’re often given credit for, and that the best fairy tales are often dark, scary places. Coraline is no exception. And, even if you’re not a stop-motion aficionado, the film is an eye-popping visual treat — I really wish I’d seen it in 3D.

Once upon a time, there lived a little girl named Caroline…uh, Coraline. (Dakota Fanning) Whisked away by her two writerly parents (Teri Hatcher and John Hodgeman) to a dilapidated apartment house in the farthest reaches of Oregon, Coraline soon finds herself as blue as her hair in her gray new home. And so, she spends her days exploring the new environs and wishing she were somewhere, anywhere else. But, as it turns out, Anywhere Else is only a short crawl away. For, behind a tiny door in the living room, there exists another world, one in which parents are never distracted with boring writing projects, and both they and the bizarre coterie of neighbors — two British spinsters, an acrobatic Russian, a boy in a skeleton mask — are always solicitous of Coraline’s well-being.

Perhaps too solicitous, in fact. While Coraline takes a shine to her “other” family at first — despite their somewhat off-putting button eyes — she starts to find them a bit suffocating after awhile, and particularly after her dear, sweet other-mother suggests she pin her eyes shut. (And just wait until we get to the coat hangers.) And, when our heroine encounters the gloomy ghosts of other (now-button-eyed) children who haphazardly wandered into this erstwhile Shangri-la, she comes to realize that other-Mother is smothering her for a reason: For all its color and beauty, Coraline’s splendiferous secret world is really just a (lonely) spider’s web, meticulously crafted to ensnare her, forever and ever and ever. Be careful what you wish for, Coraline…

I hadn’t read Neil Gaiman’s book before seeing the movie, but I’m willing to bet that the eerie tone established here — and the scuttling stop-motion monstrosities therein — are one with his vision. (In fact, even the Sandman-like dream logic of the story notwithstanding, the button-eye gimmick reminded me quite a bit of Gaiman’s Corinthian, and there’s a wager-with-the-devil made at one point that brought to mind Morpheus’ spoken-word gambit in Hell.) Even so, it’s clear that Henry Selick has brought his own demented gleam to Gaiman’s world — see, for example, the spindly, nightmarish look of Momma Big Bad, or pretty much anything here involving stop-motion terriers. And, even when the story is going through its paces, there’s always something unique and amazing to catch your eye in the frame.

A word of caution: Coraline might be a touch too frightening for really, really young kids. (And besides, that old terrier with cataracts getting force-fitted into his angel costume is about as dark as anything you’ll ever find in a purported children’s movie.) But I could imagine youngsters of a certain age, particularly those with a macabre bent, really getting into this film. And in terms of the sheer wealth of imagination and meticulous craftsmanship on display, it’s hard to imagine that very many other films this year will be in Coraline‘s orbit. You go, girl.

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