Boys and girls, be careful what you wish for, 'cause you just might get it. Repeat. You just might get it. You just might. Get it?
Over her perilous journey into wish fulfillment, Coraline Jones, the very curious heroine of Henry Selick's shivery fairy tale in stop-motion animation, learns that more tears are shed over answered prayers than unanswered ones.
A macabre mystery for children and a cautionary tale for their folks, Coraline is a yarn - twisty, knotty, taut - about a perennially bored girl whose parents are too preoccupied with work to pay her much mind.
Coraline (not Caroline!, as she is the first to correct you) wishes for a different Mom and Dad, parents who would close their laptops, open the toy box, and cook real meals, not just vegan glop.
One wouldn't want to keep up with these Joneses who live in a Victorian boardinghouse that might have been designed by Gomez Addams before it was quartered into bizarro flats. Two dog-fancying eccentrics, elderly actresses with packs of terriers living and stuffed, cohabit one. A Russian circus strongman, his army of trained mice, and lots of stinky cheese reside in another. The Joneses (voices of Teri Hatcher and John Hodgman), new arrivals, occupy the third.
The fourth apartment is empty. But when Coraline (voice of Dakota Fanning) finds a key to a passageway between the Jones place and the one presumed vacant, she discovers her dream parents there.
The dream flat looks larger, swanker and sunnier than the cramped, drab move-in where she and her stressed-out parents reside.
Coraline's "other mother," cheery and slim, presides over the stove and serves up breakfasts of tasty sausages. Her "other father" is demonstrative, composes music instead of plant-catalog copy, and seeds a magic garden of iridescent blooms expressly for Coraline to play amongst. Except for the fact that they have black buttons where their eyes should be, her dream parents are perfect. Or are they?
Selick's adaptation of Neil Gaiman's primally charged saga is The Wizard of Oz of stop-motion, as deeply unsettling as the flying monkeys in that family classic. The filmmaker is the gifted, if somewhat ghoulish, talent behind The Nightmare Before Christmas, and his new movie is suitable for brave kids who are at least age 10 and like their stories dark.
The film fine-tunes its eerie tone during a credits sequence where Selick focuses on a stylized doll (a rag doll or the voodoo kind?). It is gutted, then restitched, its stuffing replaced. One might say Selick takes the stuffing out of the doll, then scares the stuffing out of the audience.
Conceived in and shot in 3-D, Coraline makes excellent use of the retro-modern effect when it takes the audience through Coraline's rabbit hole, kind of like a vacuum hose, into the elongated abode of the Other Mother and Father. The film's Moderne visuals - like the big-headed, big-eyed, slim-bodied figures of Jazz Age cartoonist John Held Jr. - have the color and elasticity of Silly Putty.
It would take a lot more space than my allotment here to give a fine-grain description of Coraline's deeper themes. In broad strokes, it is a story about how children idolize and vilify their parents, often wishing for better cards, but ultimately learning to play the hand they're dealt. Is it premature to assign it classic status?