As fine-looking a 3D stop-motion fantasy that four years of top-flight craftsmanship can produce, Coraline offers a steady diet of artful, kinetic stimulation. Americanized and just a bit souped up from the children's novel by Neil Gaiman, it sets a surly, blue-haired tween heroine (voiced by Dakota Fanning) on a supernatural shuttle between two worlds contained inside her family's new Oregon abode, a pink, ramshackle apartment house. In the familiar everyday, her homebody parents peck out text for a gardening catalog, hunched over their keyboards, Dad makes god-awful experimental meals, and Mom forbids stomping around in the muck after a rainstorm. But on the other side of a suddenly permeable bricked-up doorway and a pulsing blue umbilical tunnel, the folks' doppelgangers reign: a permissive Other Mother ("We love mud!") whips up massive dinners of sweet breakfast food, her spouse rides a giant centipede and uses magical snapdragons to tend a psychedelic/Busby Berkeley garden, and the nutty neighbors stage spectacular aerial acts and an elaborate mice circus. But the new, accommodating parents have large, unsettling buttons for eyes, and Coraline's not the first child to have crossed over.
Director Henry Selick's images are never less than watchably enticing; the spatial wizardry of the 3D technology is fully integrated into the picture's rhythm, doling out few jumping-from-the-screen flourishes before the last reels. The family's quotidian world is musty-walled gray and Pacific Northwest foggy, and the Others's dominion, initially a riot of treats, flowers, and splashy wonders, emerges as an insect-themed lair, a spookhouse child-trap.
If the equally ambitious Coraline is unlikely to match WALL-E in audience affection, it may be because its latter half—when Other Mother fully reveals her hand—so outshines the first. The apartments' other residents, a pair of ancient music hall actresses (who habitually embalm their deceased Scottish terriers and equip them with wings) and a gymnastic Russian eccentric, are more strenuously daft than funny. And the addition of a routinely nerdy "stalker" boy, Wybie, to the story—presumably to keep the juvenile male audience engaged—makes Coraline's battle with the maternal witch a less independent, satisfying crusade than in Gaiman's tale. The only supporting character who makes a genuine splash is a feral cat, capable of sardonic speech (delivered in the silky tones of Keith David) in the Other World, whose alliance with Coraline keeps him enthusiastically pouncing on the rats that serve the Other Mother.
That extended faceoff with the wicked mom, and Coraline's attempt to liberate the pirated souls of ghost children she meets in the limbo behind a mirror, keep the narrative flying high when it threatens to flag into minor-league creepy whimsy. Mushrooming to a towering height, the fully agitated, sharp-boned Other Mother suggests an undead spindly starlet. "The beldam," as the child spirits call her, is a first-rank animated villain, and along with a genuinely scary encounter with a pupal sac hanging in a dark theater, provides the everygirl heroine with invigoratingly goosebumpy hurdles to her quest. Spend the measured, spotty buildup eyeing the depths of its handmade universe and you can anticipate Coraline ripping through its climax like a feline finishing off its prey.