As a young girl, Coraline Jones (Fanning) is already discovering how disappointing life really is. The apartment her family’s just moved into is old and leaky, and her parents, currently struggling to get their gardening manual ready for deadline, are incredibly inattentive. They don’t have time for Coraline, they don’t have time to go grocery shopping (for lunch her mother `Hatcher` offers to make a mustard-ketchup-salsa wrap), and they certainly don’t have time to actually garden.
But then, while exploring that hopelessly boring old apartment, Coraline finds a small door, locked and wall-papered over, that leads to another, similar but obviously superior apartment, complete with an alternate version of her parents: an “other mother” who cooks elaborate dinners from scratch and a father (Hodgman) who spends his nights tending a Coraline-shaped botanical Wonderland. Coraline predictably begins spending more and more time in this alternate apartment, and so grows increasingly dissatisfied with her real life. She seems ready to defect entirely, until she learns the catch: In order to stay, she has to let the “other mother” replace her eyeballs with stitched-on buttons.
The stop-motion-animation conceived by Selick (The Nightmare Before Christmas) provides one of the most beautifully textured, immersive imaginary worlds since, well, Nightmare Before Christmas, but the two films are nearly polar opposites. Where Nightmare inhabits a gleefully twisted universe of singing, dancing, mostly friendly horrors and culminates in a clear-cut and positive “be yourself” message, Coraline proceeds with dream logic and psychological-horror-film pacing, as the alternate universe’s wonders are gradually revealed to be nightmares, and the moral at movie’s end is much grimmer and more ambiguous. Needless to say, Coraline is no film for small children, who will be alternately bored and tramautized by the onscreen action (or lack thereof), but older kids, capable of quiet contemplation and appreciating visual artistry and nuance over pop-culture references and poop gags, might just be scared into ceasing their ungrateful whining, for 100 minutes or so, at least.