In theaters.

Coraline would have scared the crap out me when I was a kid, and even now, when I’m pushing toward thirty (oh god), it jangles my nerves more than I’d care to admit. Too many supposedly scary movies rely on cheap jack-in-the-box shocks and splattery gore, but Coraline understands real horror, burrowing into the psyche to play on primal fears and existential dread.

By this, I don’t mean to suggest that it’s inappropriate for children. To the contrary, if you aren’t a bratty, self-involved little kid (or don’t remember what it’s like to be one, or aren’t still a bit bratty and self-involved), you probably won’t get as much out of Coraline. The warped fairy tale is about growing up, coming to realize that you’re not the center of the universe, even your parents’ universe, and who understands the angst of that lesson better than a kid? The genius of the movie, based on Neil Gaiman’s award-winning book, is that it respects kids enough to take that lesson seriously. The horror ties into the attendant angst and fears, honoring them and confronting them and earning the cathartic payoff.

The titular protagonist of the tale is a refreshingly normal, petulant little girl whose parents have just moved the family to an insolated boarding house. Both her mom and dad work from home, but they are busy and preoccupied, so Coraline is mostly left to her own devices. Exploring the rickety old house, she discovers a doorway to a kind of alternate world, and there she meets her Other Mother and Other Father, doubles of her real parents but more fun and attentive, seemingly devoted to her every whim. More unsettling, though, are the buttons on their faces in place of eyes, and when the Other Mother offers Coraline the chance to stay—if only she, too, replaces her eyes with buttons—the girl becomes nervous and flees. But as Coraline soon realizes, the Other Mother’s motives—and her world—are not quite what they seem, and when Coraline’s real parents disappear, she must summon her courage and go back through the magic doorway to rescue them.

The oddness of the story fascinates me most—Gaiman wrote a truly modern fairy tale, not one that tries to paste contemporary values over something older—but I have been remiss so far in not mentioning the animation: vivid, expressive stop-motion work. The movie is directed by Henry Selick of The Nightmare Before Christmas fame, and like Nightmare, Coraline makes the most of its too-little-used medium. The characters’ pliable faces convey so much emotion, and the exquisite detail of their world is bewitching and immersive. The use of 3D effects (which I usually find clumsy and distracting) is seamless and surprisingly effective, showing up mainly in the Other Mother’s domain and helping to emphasize her enticing reach.

The otherworldly Other Mother is a chilling villain—even before she reveals her true nature, those black button-eyes are deeply uncanny in the Freudian sense—and Coraline makes for a compelling protagonist, largely because heroism doesn’t come naturally to her. Her very ordinariness, her selfishness and brittle demeanor, make her feel like a real kid, not an idealized portrait of childhood or a miniaturized pop-culture machine, so when she does manage to rise to the challenges she faces, the drama feels earned and meaningful—and deliciously scary.

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