Coraline Jones (voiced by Dakota Fanning) has just moved into this old apartment building in the middle of nowhere with her parents, two experts in gardening and agriculture who she feels neglect her in favour of their work, which currently entails writing a garden manual. This leaves Coraline to her own devices, as she does not know anyone around here or even if there is anyone around here, so she decides to try dowsing for the well she has heard about. As she follows the twig she has picked, she becomes aware that she is being watched, first by a black cat and then by a figure on a motorbike...
But he's not the person she should be worried about, in this majestically creepy work from stop motion animator Henry Selick, making a great return to the screen after two middling features that failed to some degree to live up to his modern classic, The Nightmare Before Christmas. There was a spot of controversy about the film early on in its release as there were those who were unsure if it was suitable for children, not relishing the thought of having to get up in the middle of the night to comfort their offspring who had been given nightmares by this, but as it was even if it seemed to be better appreciated by adults, families flocked to it regardless.
It seemed stop motion was the medium to turn to if you were not Pixar and wanted a dose of respect from your audience for all that painstaking effort you had put into your creation, but Selick had obvious skills in this field and adapting one of Neil Gaiman's Alice in Wonderland-themed stories was ideal for his talents. Assisted by a group of skilled voice actors easily bringing the characters to vocal life, the director and his team of immensely patient animators took what could have been very much in the debt of the Tim Burton films in this vein and made it their own. So much so that the sequences set in the real world looked about as macabre as those set in the fantasy ones.
Not this this was a flaw, it was simply the manner in which Coraline turned out, and the only way you know the title character has entered the parallel universe is that it seems a lot brighter - for a while. Told by her father to go exploring so she is out of his hair, she finds a small, locked door in a wall and bothers her mother until she unlocks it for her, but all they find behind it is a lot of bricks. However, they don't know it but the damage has been done and the way is open for the forces behind the little portal to invite Coraline in. When she goes to bed that night she is awoken by a mouse, follows it and ends up going through the door and finds herself in another, almost identical home.
Almost identical down to the parents, except for some reason they have buttons for eyes. Yet they're so nice to the girl that she starts to prefer them to her actual mother and father who appear to barely tolerate her: the food is better, there's more to do, all in all it's more entertaining. No matter that the only friend she has made in the real world, the bike-riding Wybie (Robert Bailey Jr), here has a double who cannot speak (through no desire of his own), Coraline is oblivious to the fact that there is something sinister going on. It is from that point, where the plot seems to have begun to footle about with nothing much, that the mixed feelings about mothers emerge to strengthen the narrative. Mothers can provide love and fun for their children, sure, but here Selick concentrates on the main two nightmares about them: that they have been replaced by someone else, and that they never loved you anyway. It's a rich seam to mine, and Coraline does it with admirable flair and eccentricity, a true gem. Music by Bruno Coulais.