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Eye candy 'Coraline' is a dazzling -- and scary -- animated treat

Pull the camera back just a little. Take the overview. I think we may be living in the greatest age for animated film that ever was -- greater even than the three years (1937-1940) that first brought us "Snow White," "Fantasia" and Warner Brothers' first Bugs Bunny short.

Now zoom in and take a good look at "Coraline." Yes, it's not without its small stretches of boredom. And no, its "grass is always greener" and "there's no place like home" theme could certainly have been rendered with far more emotional power than the movie does.

But this stop-motion animation is by far the greatest stop-motion animation I've ever seen. Certainly, it's worlds better than what you find in Henry Selick's first major theatrical movie, "The Nightmare Before Christmas."

"Coraline" is such a dazzling visual experience that you won't worry about the boring parts or the slight emotional deficiencies. You'll just wait a few minutes to be bedazzled -- and not long after, probably blown away.

And, if you're young, you may be occasionally terrified, too, though not in the same ultra-creepy way that I understand readers of Neil Gaiman's best-selling book for young readers were. (The News' regular children's book reviewer Jean Westmoore guessed that the book would eventually be thought a classic.)

Think of the full-length animated film wonderments that now seem to come upon us routinely, whether they're Pixar masterpieces like "WALL-E," or the high-velocity and ultra-smart digital delights of the "Shrek" movies or now "Coraline" which does things with stop-motion animation onscreen in 3-D I never thought I'd see.

It's shown, by the way, in theaters in both regular and 3-D and, by all means, go for the 3-D glasses. The process is so much more impressive now than it was when it was invented that there's virtually no comparison anymore.

Things start ever-so-modestly and gently. Coraline Jones (Dakota Fanning) lives with her permanently distracted mother and father in a 150-year old apartment house called The Pink Palace. Mom and Dad are forever at their computers writing plant catalogs (even though Mom not-so-secretly hates dirt.) Coraline, for her part, doesn't even know Poison Oak when she sees it.

Dad is the one who does the family cooking -- badly, very, very badly.

Things are a little more interesting elsewhere in the building where there are a couple of elderly actresses who advise "never wear green in a dressing room" and a Russian circus performer with the most preposterously fake accent since Chico Marx (voiced by Ian McShane with devilish relish.)

But then, one day, little, self-reliant, spunky Coraline follows a stray mouse through a little door and a rickety tunnel into an alternative universe, where there's the "other mother" who has the same voice as her own (Teri Hatcher's in fact) but buttons instead of eyes. In fact, everyone has buttons for eyes there.

That, however, doesn't stop them from eating sumptuous dinners with turkey and gravy served on a toy train encircling the table -- with wonderfully gooey desserts to be had too. Nor does that stop her "other mother" from doting on Coraline and catering to her in a way that her own never has.

So, yes, those buttons for eyes are a bit worrisome, but Coraline is infatuated with this alternate world. Until, that is, all is revealed as being a good deal scarier -- and wilder -- than Coraline ever thought. The real Queen of the alternative universe is called "The Belle Dame" (as in Keats' "La Belle Dames Sans Merci" -- The Beautiful Woman Without Pity). And everywhere she goes, she's never far from a needle and thread and a couple of buttons to go in someone's face where their eyes once were.

By that time, the movie has visually exploded -- so much so that its lack of major emotional affect and terror will matter less than what Henry Selick's screen so profligately gives you.

Truthfully, I'm not sure this is a children's film at all -- just an extravagant work of cinematic imagination to which adults will drag children out of guilt and obligation, when they should be going themselves out of anticipation and delight.

e-mail: jsimon@buffnews.com

***

CORALINE

3 1/2 stars (Out of 4)

STARRING: The voices of Dakota Fanning, Teri Hatcher, Keith David, John Hodgman and Jennifer Saunders

DIRECTOR: Henry Selick

RUNNING TIME: 101 minutes

RATING: PG-13 for some wildly animated 3-D scares.

THE LOWDOWN: Stop-action animated fantasy about a frustrated little girl who discovers an alternate universe where everything is candy and gravy. From a children's book by Neil Gaiman.

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