Neil Gaiman's young-adult novel Coraline is a fun, creepy read. A girl named Coraline, feeling neglected by her busy parents, goes through a hidden door in her new home and meets her adoring Other Mother, who soon proves to be a malevolent force. It's the kind of book that feels as though it taps into the weird place in the collective unconscious where fairy tales originate. The animated film version of Coraline does the unthinkable: It surpasses the book in almost every way.
I'll admit I had my worries going in. If you're going to make a full-length stop-motion animated film, why would you bother complicating that already astounding achievement by making it a 3-D stop-motion animated film? It's that sort of technical grandstanding—like the adaptation of Beowulf from a couple years ago—that usually implies a lack of confidence in the filmmaker. In this case, it's the choice of a supremely confident filmmaker: Henry Selick has one-upped his previous film The Nightmare Before Christmas by riddling Coraline with sweeping 3-D set pieces that appear to fill the whole theater and flights of fancy that demand repeat viewings: Kangaroo mice dance for our amusement, and a trapeze act before an audience of hundreds of Scotty dogs takes full advantage of all the technology at Selick's disposal.
It's admirable, too, that Coraline doesn't skimp on the book's creepiness. In fact, the film's visuals do a better job of showing exactly how disturbing it can be when a child's dreams come true, as when the boisterous neighbor boy is "fixed" by Coraline's Other Mother. This isn't a film for small children—in many ways, it's a horror film for preteens—but it's gorgeous and well-plotted and genuinely affecting. And plucky, clever, and occasionally petulant Coraline is a great, memorable film heroine. I haven't seen a mainstream Hollywood film this sumptuous and—goddamn it—magical in a good long time.