“Coraline” is an only moderately effective animated feature from writer-director Henry Selick, the filmmaker behind 1993’s beguiling “The Nightmare Before Christmas.” Though probably too scary and intense for younger tykes, this stop-motion film based on the book by acclaimed fantasy writer Neil Gaiman tries to appeal to both adults and children, but the storytelling problems undercut its often striking visual design.

The heroine, 11-year-old Coraline (voiced by Dakota Fanning) has just moved across the country to Oregon with Mother (Teri Hatcher) and Father (John Hodgman). Her parents are excited about their new home, but Coraline misses her friends and thinks that her new neighbors are nothing more than a collection of eccentric weirdoes. Bored and inquisitive, she finds a small door buried behind the wallpaper in a room of the house. Upon discovery that it leads to a long tunnel, she follows the path until she winds up in an alternate version of her home, complete with perfect clones of her parents–except they have buttons for eyes.

In this Other World, Other Mother and Other Father (also voiced by Hatcher and Hodgman) are much nicer, giving Coraline everything she wants and attending to her whims. As Coraline can only enter this world when she goes to sleep, bedtime becomes her favorite part of the day. Unfortunately, Other Mother isn’t nearly as sweet and loving as she lets on, and once Coraline realizes what her real motivation is, she desperately longs to return to her normal life. But it may be too late to escape from this parallel reality.

Writer-director Henry Selick came to prominence 16 years ago by bringing Tim Burton’s idea for a macabre Christmas special to the screen with “The Nightmare Before Christmas.” Since then Selick has directed films, which have incorporated both live-action and stop-motion components, but “Coraline” most closely mirrors the dark comic sensibility and grownup fantasy elements of “Nightmare.” Unlike that previous film, however, whose short running time (76 minutes) allowed for a tight narrative that didn’t overstay its welcome, “Coraline” is a longer film whose spell over the viewer isn’t as gripping.

Even without reading Neil Gaiman’s original book, the story arc of “Coraline” is fairly predictable from its opening moments. Coraline is a willful little girl who resents her family for making her move, so when she discovers this seemingly wonderful Other World, she thinks she’s found happiness. But of course there is a catch, which will lead Coraline to realize that she should be grateful for the family she has.

While there’s nothing inherently faulty with this storyline, Selick’s script doesn’t offer much that’s fresh thematically, suggesting that the movie’s unsophisticated narrative structure is better suited for young people than for adults. In this way, “Coraline” aspires to be a modern-day Grimm Brothers fairy tale, weaving a simple story to impart a moral at the end. Unfortunately, the buildup to the discovery of Other Mother’s plan takes too long (and involves too many colorful but one-note side characters) before Selick finally gets to unleash his dark wonders. Once the plot twist occurs, “Coraline” morphs into a pleasingly scary, creepy film, one that caters more to grownups who will love the juxtaposition of childlike fantasy and disturbing imagery. Ideally, the film should be able to appeal simultaneously to the sensibilities of children and adults, which Selick did quite confidently in “Nightmare.” Alas, “Coraline” feels divided against itself, not as capable of deftly weaving the different tones into a coherent whole.

The stop-motion animation compensates mightily for the narrative problems. The first stop-motion film to be photographed in stereoscopic 3-D, “Coraline” will also be screening in conventional 2-D, but the 3-D experience is much preferable in order to fully drink in the world Selick and his team have concocted. Selick was also the film’s production designer, and he’s crafted a delightfully spooky house that’s straight out of a horror movie. Even if some of the supporting characters feel superfluous, these neighbors’ environments are always lovingly and smartly detailed. Ironically, while the script’s humor can be decidedly hit-and-miss, the film’s visuals are consistently witty and inventive. Because of its 3-D component, “Coraline” draws comparisons to “The Polar Express,” the 2004 holiday film from director Robert Zemeckis that was also produced in 3-D and equally suffered from a discrepancy between its startling, engrossing visual strategy and its thin, mediocre story.

The voice cast does solid work. As Coraline, Dakota Fanning provides the necessary brattiness and impudence. John Hodgman is amusing as Coraline’s adoring, milquetoast Father. Teri Hatcher takes top honors, though. In the regular world, her Mother is harried but still sweet, whereas she becomes a fun Wicked Witch-esque villainess as Other Mother. Of the supporting cast, Ian McShane leaves the strongest impression as a well-meaning but clueless Russian gymnast.

Voice Cast

Dakota Fanning (Coraline Jones)

Teri Hatcher (Mother/Other Mother)

Jennifer Saunders (Miss Spink)

Dawn French (Miss Forcible)

Keith David (Cat)

John Hodgman (Father/Other Father)

Robert Bailey Jr. (Wybie Lovat)

Ian McShane (Mr. Bobinsky)


A Focus Features presentation of a LAIKA production in association with Pandemonium.

Producers: Bill Mechanic, Claire Jennings, Henry Selick, Mary Sandell

Director: Henry Selick

Screenplay: Henry Selick (based on the novel by Neil Gaiman)

Cinematography: Pete Kozachik

Editors: Christopher Murrie, Ronald Sanders

Music: Bruno Coulais

Production design: Henry Selick

Running time: 100 minutes