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A SMART KID'S SCARY JOURNEY


      When Alice fell down the rabbit hole she landed in a topsy-turvy world where familiar sights were skewed out of shape, comforting characters became slightly alarming, and Victorian platitudes were gently mocked.
    Neil Gaiman, a popular author of modern fantasy, goes further than Lewis Carroll in his book “Coraline,” which won the 2003 Hugo Award for best novella, the 2003 Nebula Award ditto, and the 2002 Bram Stoker Award for best work for young readers.
    Now Henry Selick, whose work you know from “The Nightmare Before Christmas” and “James and the Giant Peach,” has turned “Coraline” into a funny and elegant and scary animated feature that should become an instant classic.
    We should note that the “scary” part really is: this is not the Disney “Alice” of your grandparents' day. There are images and concepts here that could frighten little kids, but in a much healthier way than the slasher flicks I see thoughtless people taking four-year-olds to these days.
    Coraline is a bright and funny 11-year-old whose parents are too busy to pay any attention to her, and we all know what happens when such kids are left to their own devices. They've just moved into a spooky old Victorian mansion that's been cut up into spooky Victorian flats in an Oregon town that's obviously Ashland, because there's a Shakespeare festival, and the local kids yell lines from “Richard III” in their street games.
    It rains a lot, being Oregon, but Coraline just puts on her slicker and boots and Greek fisherman's cap and takes it in stride. That's how she meets Wybie, a local loner kid, and his really scrawny cat. (These are characters that Selick invented, he said, so Caroline wouldn't have to spend the whole movie talking out loud to herself.)
    Very much like Alice, Coraline discovers a small door behind the living-room wallpaper, which appears to be blocked by a brick wall until a strange jumping mouse leads her back to it after bedtime, when she finds that it opens onto a pulsating, glowing tunnel. Being our heroine she immediately crawls through it and finds herself in an exact replica of her own world, except her doppelganger parents are attentive and amusing, and just love her to pieces. The only disturbing note is that all the creatures in the Other world, including the Other Mother and the Other Father, have buttons sewn over the sockets where their eyes should be. They tell Caroline that she can live there forever and have fun if she'll just let them sew buttons over HER eyes,  and welcome to the troubling world of Neil Gaiman. Coraline's adventures in the Other world become more and more bizarre as she figures out the Other Mother's twisted motivation, and watches in horror as the surrogate parent becomes more and more spiderish.
    But Caroline is heir to a long line of smart and self-possessed kid heroes and heroines, and even as she's drawn deeper into the story's terrifying vortex, her resolve and her courage grow to deal with it (along with help from Wybie, and his cat, and some very strange neighbors).
    As you know if you've seen the previous movies, Selick works in stop-motion animation, which has come a very, very long way since the days of Gumby and Pokey. All the old jerkiness is gone, and the backgrounds and their colors, sometimes painted and sometimes computer-generated, go from alarmingly somber to breathtakingly beautiful. In one stunning moment, when the arachnid Other-Mom dissolves the dream around Coraline the pixels rain out of the frame, leaving her lost in a stark white, featureless world. In another moment that's just as stunning, the ceiling of Coraline's bedroom becomes a swirling version of the sky in Van Gogh's Starry Night that's almost too bright to look at.
    The movie's rhythms could use a little more variation,  but it's refreshing that Selick doesn't hurl the jokes and the scares at us frantically, the way a lot of kids' movies do, but lets us discover the wonderful sights, and ideas, at a more thoughtful pace.