I suppose the first thing I should tell you about “Coraline” is that you probably shouldn't bring little ones to it.
Well, that's not true. The first thing I should tell you is that it's excellent, good enough to almost certainly outclass any other animated film to come out this year, good enough to go down as one of the best animated films ever to come out of Hollywood.
But you probably should be warned, if (as I did) you saw the trailer and expected something close to “The Nightmare Before Christmas.” It's very much in that same vein, a fantasy in which things are darker and richer and stranger than they are here, but with “Coraline” the tone is much darker, the ghouls more frightening and disturbing, the bawdiness bawdier.
All of which makes for a rip-snorting, boogeyman-laden hallucination of a story. The tale is this: A young girl explores a new home in what appears to be gray and drippy New England while her parents work on writing a new book and generally neglect her. Though “neglect” isn't quite the word — her parents seem at times to openly dislike her presence in the house.
So Coraline goes looking for a better place. She finds it in the form of a tunnel that leads through the wall of her bedroom to a parallel world, one in which her parents dote on her, her neighbors present her with endless delights, and even the garden grows flowers just for her.
But things aren't quite perfect. Her new parents have black buttons sewn into their eyes (a thing difficult to ignore, though she tries), those endless delights sometimes seem like just a pleasant facade, and when she tries to pull away, her mother goes from doting to obsessive in short order. Soon Coraline finds herself trapped, desperate to get back to a world that may be uncaring, but at least it isn't becoming more monstrous with every passing moment.
That last bit's the story's biggest weak spot — Coraline's real parents are so horrible at parenting that it seems almost unbelievable that she'd want to get back to them and keep them safe. The lesson she learns seems less like “your real life is flawed but full of good things” and more like “your real life doesn't include a mother who's a psychopath, so deal with it.” Which rings a bit hollow. It seems more likely that she'd want to run away from everything and find her own life somewhere else.
That's a forgivable failing, though, because along the way you'll be treated to some dazzling and memorable moments. The stop-motion animation lends the movie an aged charm, and the other world looks and feels like every bizarre dream you've ever had, only more fully realized and richly textured.
But “Coraline” earns every inch of its PG rating, so parents of very small or otherwise easily frightened children might take note — this is essentially a fantasy/horror film for kids, and it doesn't skimp on the horror part. Go see it, though, because you'll be missing out on something wonderful if you don't.