Neil Gaiman's spooky novella goes 3-D on screen in Coraline

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Dec 14, 2012, 3:54 PM EST

Through the looking glass young Coraline's real parents go, and it's up to her not only to save their lives—but to restore serenity to the dead. That's a tall order for a little girl, but this animated blue-tressed tot isn't stressed. In fact, our capable heroine, voiced by Dakota Fanning, is more than up to the challenge in this dark, 3-D animated kid flick.

The story, quite similar to author Neil Gaiman's MirrorMask, follows a prepubescent (at least, I think she is—her wide, smooth, puppet-like countenance and impossibly spindly body make it hard to tell ... but she does sleep with a teddy bear) singleton who goes into an alternate world, a la Alice In Wonderland, and encounters a kooky cast of characters who include a Cheshire-like cat, liquid landscapes and a completely cracked carnival.

At first, everything is just too good to be true. Unlike Coraline's dreary, rainy, cold and barren actual home, the Other House is brimming with warmth and love. Her Other Parents (Teri Hatcher and John Hodgman) are attentive, and they shower her not only with attention, but with oodles and oodles of home-cooked comfort foods. So what if they have sewn-on button eyes and harbor the translucent corporeal bodies of three dead children? Who cares if they've rendered her friend Wybie (Robert Bailey Jr.) speechless, if Wybie's pet Cat (Keith David) can suddenly speak English, and if what he says is a warning? Coraline wants to believe that the Other World is her new home, but as the red flags add up and her real parents get trapped behind a mirror in the hallway, she has to admit that the grass isn't greener.

But just admitting she has a problem isn't enough. Coraline has to fix it. She makes a devil's bargain with Other Mother and goes off on an ocular scavenger hunt ... if she wins, she gets her life back and restores the souls of the kids who didn't make it out. If she loses, then her eyes are forfeit and in go the buttons.

The first-ever native stop-motion 3-D feature, directed by Henry Selick (James and the Giant Peach, The Nightmare Before Christmas), looks cool but plays things far too safe. Unduly derivative, the imaginative landscape is only skin-deep. Working with famed Japanese illustrator Tadahiro Uesugi, Selick and company crib not only from Alice, but also from Tim Burton, Pinocchio and Jean Cocteau. True, the argument could be made that if you're 10 you probably haven't seen all this before ... but the kids I screened the movie with seemed to lean toward one extreme or the other: fidgety boredom or tear-stained terror. I don't think that was the hope or intent of the filmmakers.

Coraline has its moments (doomed terriers, rats incognito and a taut trapeze tete-a-tete), but the 3-D picture is quite subdued and the acting and pacing are strictly 2-D. If I were you, I'd save myself the big-screen eyestrain and wait for the Other Movie (on DVD).