This is a movie jam-packed with things designed to dazzle and amaze, but the most astonishing thing, to my mind, is that nowhere in its credits does one find the name Tim Burton. It was directed by Henry Selick. But then, so was Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993). Selick helmed 1996’s James and The Giant Peach. Guess who produced it? Any number of people make romantic comedies, westerns, action adventures and spy thrillers. Exactly two people specialize in creepy, stop-motion phantasmagoria.
Burton may be missing in action, but every frame of Coraline is infused with his trademark aesthetic. Based on Neil Gaiman’s 2003 Hugo-Award-winning horror novella, the story chronicles the misadventures of an 11-year-old girl (voiced by Dakota Fanning) who has moved with her parents from Michigan to Oregon. There they take up residence in a surreal, pink apartment house straight out of Beetlejuice.
Coraline is a 21st-century version of Alice, Lucy and Dorothy, whose fantastic travels through a looking glass, behind a closet door and over the rainbow have variously enchanted and spooked so many generations. She is a decidedly modern incarnation who faces, in the beginning, anyway, decidedly contemporary dilemmas: Her primary gripe is that neither of her work-at-home parents (Teri Hatcher and John Hodgman) will look up from their laptops long enough to pay attention to her, much less play with her. They’re gardening writers who appear more interested in nurturing flora than raising a daughter.
At one point, Coraline’s exasperated dad suggests she occupy herself by exploring their rambling new quarters, and, faster than you can say “Pan’s Labyrinth,” the young girl has discovered a mysterious door leading to a parallel universe. Everything on the other side is just like Coraline’s world — only fun. Her Other Mother dotes on her and feeds her all her favorite treats. Her Bizarro World dad plays tune after tune on a piano that seems to be alive. Even the furniture’s an upgrade. The chairs are colorful giant bugs.
It isn’t long, though, before Coraline begins to suspect all is not as peachy as it appears. For one thing, there’s the disconcerting fact that her new and improved parents have black buttons where their eyes should be, like dolls. For another, they display more and more reluctance to let her leave with every visit. As so often happens in matters of magical passageways to supernatural dimensions, things eventually take a turn for the Twilight Zone. I don’t think it would be fair to people who haven’t read Gaiman’s book to reveal what happens. So let’s just say that Coraline and a number of others wind up in grave otherworldly peril, and the young girl is forced to summon reserves of wit and courage she never suspected she possessed.
Selick has the advantage of a worldwide ready-made market for his film, so the question isn’t whether it will draw an audience. Rather, it’s whether it will leave that audience satisfied that the writer-director has done justice to the source material and not just used it as a springboard for his own fanciful tweaking and noodling. This is where the movie is, I think, somewhat vulnerable to criticism.
Without doubt, Coraline is a freaky feast for the eyes — particularly when experienced in 3-D. A number of Gaiman’s characters, imaginative flourishes and story elements have been realized with undeniable deftness. The serenading rodents, deranged piano and magical flowers are highlights, along with a flipped-out setpiece in which Scotty dogs fill the seats of an opera hall where a trippy trapeze act is performed.
But, it must be said, there are shortcomings. Selick has tinkered with key plot developments, slowed the book’s pacing in places nearly to the stalling point, and even taken it on himself to insert a character of his own creation. Talk about “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” The filmmaker’s decision to saddle his heroine with a personality-free playmate named Wyborn (Robert Bailey Jr.) is beyond baffling. He’s 100 percent dead weight.
So, on balance, what we have here is a picture boasting delicious, visionary dreamscapes in the service of a book it might have served better by leaving well enough alone. The voice cast, I should add, is uniformly spiffy. The “Absolutely Fabulous” duo of Jennifer Saunders and Dawn French, in particular, shine as eccentric, over-the-hill burlesque performers. Hatcher is marvelous in the dual role of good and evil mom. And, for her part, Fanning nicely navigates the range of emotions experienced by a temperamental tween who learns the hard way that, appearances to the contrary, there’s no place like home.