If fans of

Neil Gaiman's

Coraline

wonder why the film version doesn't take its visual cues from

Dave McKean's

book illustrations, that's because when animator

Henry

Selick

first read Gaiman's children's fantasy years ago, it was an unpublished manuscript, just the prose.

"There were no illustrations," remembers Selick. "I started doing the first draft of the screenplay, and so I started imagining that world. It was a year or so later when the first sketches were shared with me. Dave's a very impressive artist and I actually considered going there, going down that same visual path. . . . But ultimately I felt I've already envisioned something different."

Selick's vision for

Coraline

- a wondrous, strange tale of a little girl (voiced by

Dakota Fanning

) who tumbles into a parallel universe where her parents and neighbors assume bizarre and perhaps sinister form - is gorgeous, albeit unsettling. A stop-motion animation piece in which real puppets on miniature sets are photographed frame-by-frame in painstaking detail,

Coraline

has a magical look that quotes from

Matisse

and

Van Gogh

, the dark artistry of Czech surrealist animator

Jan

Švankmajer

, and Selick's own unique sensibilities. This is, after all, the man who directed

James and the Giant Peach

and

Tim Burton's The Nightmare Before Christmas

- wildly imaginative, eye-popping mixes of weirdness and whimsy.

Coraline

opens Friday and will be playing in the "Real 3-D" format at special area theaters, and in a regular 2-D format in others. Selick, 56, moved with his family from California to Portland, Oregon, almost five years ago to work for the Laika animation studio (founded by Nike kazillionaire

Phil Knight

). After working on a CG short, he stepped into

Coraline

. The project has taken nearly four years to complete, and for the most part, the producing partners and distributor have left Selick alone. Once in a while, however, the Rumson, N.J., native would get questions, or suggestions, wondering if he couldn't lighten up the story. In the film, Coraline's "other world" parents have buttons for eyes, and they want to sew buttons into their little girl's eyes, too. There are elements of

Alice in Wonderland

disquietude, and

Hansel and Gretel

menace, as well.

"Occasionally, I'd get a note and my response - which I never sent them - was always, 'Did you read the book?' And while it doesn't have

Harry Potter

sales, it has sold over two million. . . .

"But, yeah, the tone of it is different than what's been made by Pixar and DreamWorks, certainly. But it's not really so different from the first features that

Walt Disney

did.

Snow White

, where a queen wants the heart of a young girl delivered to her in a box. . . . Pinocchio sees his best friend turned into an animal, and it could happen to him. . . .

Fantasia

,

Night on Bald Mountain

, or even

The Sorcerer's Apprentice

. . . .

"We have a very long tradition of like

Grimm's

fairy tales, or cautionary tales, that our tribal elders were telling around the campfire, and saying, 'Don't go out in the woods, you're going to get eaten.' And eventually someone was better at telling those stories than someone else, and they were the tales that lived on. They're cautionary fairy tales, life lessons.

"We're still in tune with that, we just haven't made those sort of animated films in this country since the early Disney, but there is a tradition. We're just reviving that."

Philly film fests shake-up.

Folks getting ready for that spring rite of movie gluttony known as the Philadelphia Film Festival may have to make some adjustments.

Because of a huge rift - money, creative differences, ego clashes, power grabs - between the longtime festival programmers headed by TLA's

Ray Murray

and board members of the nonprofit Philadelphia Film Society that oversees the annual festival, changes are in store.

As things stand now, Philadelphia Cinefest 1, not Philadelphia Film Festival 18, will be happening March 26 through April 5 - the traditional spring window for the city's major film festival. Murray, who has been programming the PFF since 2001, serves as the Cinefest's artistic director, and has already booked key titles from Sundance, Toronto and other world fests, including

Adam, Hunger, The Hurt Locker, Lymelife

and

Rock Prophecies.

He will also program a summer gay and lesbian film festival.

Meanwhile, the Philadelphia Film Society retains the legal right to the names Philadelphia Film Festival and Philadelphia International Gay and Lesbian Film Festival.

Andrew Greenblatt

, the PFS' executive director, says that barring a last-minute reconciliation with Murray and the TLA organization, a new Philadelphia Film Festival will be mounted with a new curator, perhaps in the fall.

"Can the city sustain two large film festivals?" says Greenblatt, who acknowledges that the Film Society would have to start from scratch with a new team of programmers. "I don't see why it wouldn't. I mean, people love movies. . . . Even in this economy, it's the cheapest form of entertainment for most people. I think there's room for two festivals."

As for Murray, who spends a good part of the year traveling to festivals to pick the cream of the crop for Philadelphia, he promises that March's Cinefest is going to be "a great festival."

"It's been a very good year for films," he notes. "I hope the audiences are going to be like, 'OK, it's the festival as we know it, even if it has a different name.' "

And does Murray think the city can support two fests?

"The question isn't

can

, it is

will

," he says. "The TLA organization has . . . the history, the contacts, the staff, the knowledge and the desire to continue to run these festivals. ... They [the Film Society] may want to run one - good luck. It takes a lot of money, people, time, experience, commitment, audience development, community support and passion. If they have all that, I may even attend!"

Stay tuned.