Feb 11, 2009 at 12:00 am

Animator Henry Selick sure can pick 'em. Batting three for three (if you don't count Selick's real-world film failure Monkeybone) and getting better and more macabre with each film, the stop-action animator debuted with Tim Burton's The Nightmare Before Christmas, followed up with Roald Dahl's James and the Giant Peach and now brings us the gloriously gothic and deliciously creepy Coraline, a movie that's being sold as an animated kiddie flick but will probably scare the hell out of anyone under 10 years old.

From its eerie opening credit sequence, where a pair of skeletal hands eviscerates then refurbishes a small doll before sewing on its button eyes, to its Terminator-like final confrontation, Coraline is a moody and hallucinatory marvel. With little concern for merchandising opportunities, Selick crafts his handmade universe with the anal-retentive care of a gleefully sinister artist, perverting the standard tropes of children's entertainment into a sophisticated tale that never condescends to its underage viewers — something Pixar, for all its wonders, has never been able to do.

Adapted from a novel by Neil Gaiman, the story follows the dark and quirky adventures of Coraline Jones (voiced by Dakota Fanning), a disgruntled tween forced to move into a remote old mansion with her benignly negligent parents (Teri Hatcher and John Hodgeman). The house is divided into separate apartments and each neighbor is more bizarre than the last. There's Miss Spink (Jennifer Saunders) and Miss Forcible (Dawn French) below, a pair of aging music-hall dancers that sew angel wings onto their stuffed deceased Scottish terriers. In the apartment above is Mr. Bobinsky (Ian McShane), an eccentric Russian gymnast who trains circus mice. And from a nearby house comes Wybie (Robert Bailey Jr.), a strange local boy who seems destined for stalkerdom.

Bored and angry with her folks, Coraline stumbles across a secret hidden door one rainy afternoon, a door that leads to an alternative universe where button-eyed clones of her parents lovingly dote on her every need. They are warm, attentive and magical, offering Coraline the idyllic and fantastic childhood she always dreamed of. The only catch is that she must sew buttons over her own eyes. Warned by a wise old cat (Keith David), Coraline quickly learns the dire cost of choosing to live with her "other mother" and struggles to escape with the spirits of children who, once upon a time, made the unfortunate choice to stay.

Though some of the film's affectations are more self-consciously silly than funny, Coraline is an exquisite and visually inventive experience, made all the better by its immersive 3-D effects. Selick has a real knack for capturing the dark poetry and quirky charms of his source material. He patiently builds up the eerie qualities of Gaiman's story until the final act explodes into a harrowing confrontation between Coraline and a creature called "The Bedlam." It may not delve as deeply into the author's dark ruminations on parent-child relationships as the book, but it presents an engaging and inventive heroine who watches her wildest dreams become her worst nightmare.

Inventive, visually stunning, genuinely scary and sporting a moral worth learning —appreciate your parents no matter how imperfect they might be — Coraline is well worth a night out at the movies — children optional.

Jeff Meyers writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].