If the survival of theater-based movie viewing rests, as some argue, on the proliferation of more-cinema-than-cinema technologies like IMAX and 3-D, then we could do much worse than a landscape of features as painstakingly and winningly realized as Henry Selick’s stereoscopic 3-D puppet show, Coraline. Even though the shiny, new technological processes may be the main attraction, and they do in many instances provide that most rare of cinematic viewing experiences—the whiff of something totally new—in Selick’s film narrative, thankfully, nearly always comes first. After a virtuoso, if somewhat show-offy opening, the filmmaking settles down; where I expected to be reminded every several minutes of the 3-D-ness of the project via objects and characters constantly jutting out of the screen, Selick focuses instead on a play with spatial depth that’s more guarded, more intriguing, and more true to the cinematic medium.
The setup of Neil Gaiman’s source novel is so featherweight it ought to just blow away: young Coraline, relocated to a creepy new home feels generally ignored by her parents, and, left to her own lonely devices, discovers a doorway to an other-home where everything’s peachy—food and attention are plentiful, toys are magic, and her other-father has even planted their massive garden with magical flowers that add up to the shape of her face when viewed from above. This alternate universe proves initially seductive, but it isn’t long before sinister cracks appear in the facade created by her other-parents and Coraline finds herself at war with a very nasty creature. It’s Selick’s visual invention that brings this all to life—Coraline is overstuffed but not by the kind of gobbledy-gook dopplegangbang of the “live”-action Mirrormask or soggy psychologizing that undermined Robert Zemeckis’s otherwise kinetic Beowulf.