Coraline Breaks on Through

Neil Gaiman and Henry Selick create a dark fairy-tale world in 3D with Coraline

Coraline has sent critics scrambling for their thesauruses, and for good reason: If you overuse words like "sumptuous" and "stunning," the other critics boot you off their Facebook friends list and won't let you eat lunch at their table. Swirlies and pantsing are only a step away.

In order to avoid such a fate, Roget thinks I should tell you that Coraline is breathtaking, marvelous, and possibly even magnificent. Let's just say it's one of the best-looking movies to hit theaters in a long time, and the first movie to use 3D as an organic part of the story rather than just a gimmick.

Based on Neil Gaiman's juvenile novel of the same name, Coraline is a dark fairy tale about a bored, lonely young girl who will eventually be able to write one heck of a school essay about the dangers of getting what you wish for. Coraline Jones (voiced by Dakota Fanning) and her family have just moved from Michigan to rural Oregon. (Is that redundant?) Like most youthful transplants, she spends her time bemoaning the fact that her friends are many miles away and finding new ways to be theatrically bored. The Joneses have moved into an apartment complex called the Pink Palace—a garish old Victorian house that looks as if the oven might still have kid residue in it.

Coraline's parents (Teri Hatcher and John Hodgman) have little time for her, and the only other kid around is the owner's grandson—a strange boy named Wybie (Robert Bailey Jr.) who wears a skeleton costume and does what young boys do best, which is annoy the crap out of young girls. Coraline turns to the other denizens of the Pink Palace for entertainment, but to no avail. Bobinsky (Ian McShane), the big blue Russian who lives upstairs, only wants to train his mice, and the pair of aging burlesque actresses known as Miss Forcible and Miss Spink (British comedy queens Dawn French and Jennifer Saunders) are busy making angel costumes for their inevitably mortal dogs and reliving their dubious glory days.

Things begin to look more promising to Coraline when she finds a sealed kid-sized door in her apartment. By day it's just a bricked-off frustration, but at night it becomes something wonderful: a tunnel that looks like one of those loud, crinkly things you give someone's cat when you don't like him. When she crawls through it (mice told her to, so it must be okay) she finds herself in a place very much like the one she just left, but so much better. While her daytime world is dreary and dull, this one is spectacular and fun, full of marvelous inventions and fantastic animals. She has parents here, too. Her Other Mother and Other Father are everything she wishes her real parents were. They dote on Coraline, spoiling her with fantastic food and moonlit garden parties. Sure, they have creepy black buttons where their eyes should be, but no one's perfect, right?

It soon becomes apparent that there's more to this other realm than meets the button. When her Other Mother decides Coraline needs a playmate, she presents a mute, button-eyed version of Wybie ("I thought you'd like him better this way," Other Mother tells her). When Coraline is presented with a box containing two shiny new buttons, a spool of thread and a very sharp needle, we know nothing good can come of it.

When things go more decidedly south, the other-worldly version of the Pink Palace becomes a sort of Bluebeard's castle, with the ghosts of Coraline's predecessors languishing behind its doors. Has Coraline learned the truth in time to save herself and her parents, or will she be joining the sad little wraiths that haunt her Other Mother's realm?

Gaiman and director/screenwriter Henry Selick reach time and again into their bag of fairy-tale tricks, pulling out talking animals, magical gifts and head-scratching riddles for Coraline to solve. Like with all fairy tales, there's an unavoidable darkness to the goings-on. From its opening scene of a rag-doll evisceration (don't worry—it's only white fluff that gets pulled out), it's clear we're in for something decidedly creepier and more complex than the average kiddie movie.

Coraline is a fantastic celebration of the ability to imagine wondrous things, and the technical skills to bring them to life. Selick, best known for The Nightmare Before Christmas, has outdone himself this time around. The stop-motion animation, combined with artful and surprisingly subtle 3D effects, is nothing short of amazing. But Coraline isn't all window-dressing; there's a great story here, too. It isn't exactly a fast-paced movie—just ask the guy who sat behind me and snored during most of it—but it pays off, if you let it.