Small children will remember Coraline the way grownups recall the first time they saw flying monkeys in The Wizard of Oz, or bad guys with flashlights stalking E.T. Scary stuff for impressionable eyes, fond memories for wiser ones. • Coraline springs from the gently merciless minds of director Henry Selick, who took moviegoers to Halloweentown in The Nightmare Before Christmas and advances stop-motion animation here, and novelist Neil Gaiman. It's a pairing made in haunted house heaven: overgrown kids teasing littler ones until they almost cry. • Wouldn't you, if a movie declared your doting mother wanted to eat your soul? Or that beddy-bye doll you slept with was her spy? Or that a playmate trying to warn you can get his mouth sewn into a frown? • All these things happen in the alternate universe Coraline (voice of Dakota Fanning) crawls into, bored and ignored by her workaholic father (John Hodgman) and mother (Teri Hatcher). Be it ever so ordinary, Coraline learns there's no safer place than home. • But nothing is ordinary in Selick's macabre worlds. In "real life," Coraline has grotesquely eccentric neighbors: a former circus strongman (Ian McShane) who could have performed on the Yellow Submarine, aged sisters and former showgirls still flaunting grossly buxom bodies, and a mangy black cat (Keith David) who knows more than he tells.
The world on the other side of a hidden door Coraline discovers is even weirder. There she finds the attentive parents she desires except for the fact that they're living dolls, with buttons for eyes and stitched limbs. The neighbors are there, performing with flying Scottish terriers and acrobatic mice. It's a dream existence, until Coraline discovers the source of all the magic when "Mom" exposes her true self.
There's nothing cute about any of this. Coraline is a relentlessly grim fairy tale, yet buoyantly so, like the rush of entering a carnival house of horrors. We know everything will turn out fine at the end, but it's fun being fooled into doubting it.
This is Fanning's second starring role to debut this week (along with Push), and she's as effective an actor off-screen as on. Hatcher is surprisingly solid in her dual motherly roles, with a witchy edge to the nether-Mom that will frighten children in the best sense of the word. Parents are advised to hold their little darlings close during the last reel.
The advance screening of Coraline that I attended at Citrus Park 20 was presented in Real 3D. Moviegoers are urged to seek out locations with this capability to see Selick's film — the effect is that impressive. From opening credits showing a doll being stitched together, needles pointed at our eyes, to the picture postcard happy ending, Coraline is a 3-D feast for the eyes.
This is the movie that Monster House wanted to be: a juvenile nightmare that children can gasp and giggle along with and feel a bit braver for surviving. It's part of the maturation process that movies sometimes offer kids, and Coraline delivers in grand style.
Steve Persall can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8365. Read his blog, Reeling in the Years, at blogs.tampabay.com/movies.