In Coraline, the title character (Dakota Fanning) is a feisty girl whose preoccupied parents have moved her out to a creaky old house in the country. While sulkily exploring one day, she finds a bricked-over door that at night opens up a passageway to another world, where everything is twice as big and colorful as life and exists for her entertainment.
Coraline's real parents hate dirt and cooking but her Other Father plows a magical garden, and her Other Mother (Teri Hatcher) cooks turkey dinners and serves the gravy in an actual train going down a track. Coraline's neighbor, Mr. Bobinsky, has a circus of dancing mice and cannons that shoot cotton candy. The aging actresses who live in the next apartment stage a spectacular show with 250 Scottie dogs.
But there are some unsettling things. Everyone has glassy button eyes and the Other Mother seems to have silenced the Other Wybie (the neighbor kid who annoys Coraline). The film turns from fantasy to horror when Coraline discovers nothing is as it seems-and she and her family are in danger.
Coraline is the first stop-motion animated film to be shot in 3-D, so the makers created every part of the set by hand, fashioning the cherry blossoms from painted popcorn, the garden lilies from silicone thimbles, and the flower centers from ping pong balls. The quirky details make a vivid set and the 3-D heightens the visual panoply.
Just as Coraline eschews modern CGI in favor of old-fashioned hand-made creations, the plot eschews the determined twistedness we're used to seeing in tales like Shrek and teaches a straightforward moral. Coraline is the classic cautionary fairy tale, in which Coraline's ungratefulness leads her into danger and her courage leads her out.
Rated PG for scary images, some language, and suggestive humor, Coraline touches on the darker themes of loneliness and isolation while keeping a quirky charm. When the crisis comes, Coraline makes an appealing heroine, harnessing her snark for cleverness and stubborn independence into courage.