I stepped into the theater with doubts. Not only is iCoraline/i a children's book adaptation, which is often a mediocre genre at best (think iThe Dark is Rising/i,i Eragon/i). It is also in 3-D, which in my experience has just been a way of distracting children from a lame and uninspired the storyline.
Thankfully, my expectations were shattered by a visually stimulating tale that spins elements of iThe Nightmare Before Christmas/i and iPan's Labyrinth/i into a balanced blend of art and entertainment.
Like Ofelia in iPan's Labyrinth/i, Coraline (voiced by Dakota Fanning, who's surprisingly good), lives two lives: her boring and her mundane real one, and then her fantastical nightmarish one that consumes over half the film.
The creepy tale begins when she crawls through a hidden door in the wall of her house, entering into a seemingly perfect alternate life. Her "Other Parents" are doting and cheerful, the food is delicious and her neighbors are genuinely talented, compared to her real-world neighbors, who appear weird and boring. The only oddity is that everyone has buttons for eyes, rendering their expressions soulless and vacant. But it is everything she longs for - so Coraline keeps going back.
As the protagonist, Coraline is refreshingly flawed and realistic. Dissatisfied with moving to such a boring place and slighted by her parents, Coraline doesn't do the conventional moping or crying. She is allowed to be angry, even somewhat cruel. Her disappointment makes her vulnerable to the temptations of the false paradise, where her eagerness will be met with enthusiasm instead of irritability.
Gradually, however, Coraline realizes there is something wrong with her alternate world: Button-eyed neighbor Wybie appears, but he is mute. Her Other Mother says she "fixed" him so that Coraline would enjoy his company more. A mysterious black cat walks freely between the worlds and warns her of the danger of returning. And then the Other Mother asks Coraline to sew buttons on her eyes so she can join them forever.
If iCoraline/i, with its creepy opening scene where a floating doll is dismembered, restuffed, and sewn back together, seems a bit darker than the normal kids' fare-well, it is. Director Henry Selick, who is also responsible for iThe Nightmare Before Christmas/i, keeps Coraline from being truly "for the kids." After all, the neighbors downstairs are ex-porn stars who stuff their dead Scottish terriers and dress them in angel wings.
However, iCoraline/i is impressive as an artistic achievement as well as an entertaining film. And, a merciful change from many films, it also doesn't waste time getting to the actual story. The use of color, character expression and especially the 3-D animation all enhance the movie without distractions.
As with any special effect, there is a time and a place for 3-D. It has been carelessly thrown around in the past, with generally disastrous effects (iSpy Kids 3-D: Game Over/i and iFly Me to the Moon/i, to name two of the most egregious offenders).
iCoraline/i, however, is an example of 3-D animation done well. The neon vortex of a tunnel between her two worlds would not be half as impressive if you couldn't believe you could crawl into it. iCoraline/i is definitely a movie to see in theaters, where the special effects and colors have their full splendor. This movie is made to be seen in 3-D on a massive screen, not on a laptop in a dorm room. And even better, it's actually worth the $10.75 ticket price.
So, before we are deluged with a slew of future 3-D film copy-cats, don the dorky glasses and go see this movie in theaters.