2012 Update: ParaNorman has opened to some enthusiastic reviews, and I’m eager to see it because it comes from LAIKA Entertainment , the same movie studio that turned Neil Gaiman’s Coraline into a terrific stop-animation feature in 2009. In the three years since its release, I’ve grown more and more fond of Coraline; it’s become one of my favorite animated films, strong work on every level.

Here’s my original review, which began a two-part focus at Good Letters on movies about “Neil Gaiman’s Girls.”

Coraline couldn’t have come at a better time.

2009’s Oscar-season promised lavish feasts for moviegoers. Instead, we were given a menu of “Serious Cinema,” each feature-length entree so wrapped up in fanfare prematurely announcing its greatness and importance that I could hardly see the movies at all. I walked away hungry and disappointed.

But the dessert — that was a pleasant surprise. Thanks to storyteller Neil Gaiman and animator Henry Selick, I got excited about going to the movies again.

Gaiman rose to fame for his dark, fantastical comic book concoction (The Sandman), and now he’s an award-winning novelist, having earned Hugo, Nebula, and Bram Stoker awards, as well as the 2009 Newbery Medal (for The Graveyard Book). Nevertheless, his four film projects to date have been a mixed bag.

Stardust was uneven. (My full review is at LookingCloser.org.) Its celebrity cast was bizarre and distracting, and director Matthew Vaughn see-sawed between the tongue-in-cheek lightness of The Princess Bride and the explosive, extravagant action of Peter Jackson. Robert Zemeckis’s Beowulf, which Gaiman scripted, was a show-offy special effects exhibition.

But LAIKA Entertainment’s adaptation of Gaiman’s celebrated young-adult novel Coraline, and the sorely underrated 2005 fantasy film MirrorMask (which Gaiman co-wrote with director David McKean), are both seven-layer cakes of fantasy filmmaking.

Roger Ebert writes of Coraline, “The ideal audience for this film would be admirers of film art itself, assuming such people exist.” The same is true for MirrorMask. Both films are groundbreaking works of imaginative visual art, and both are characterized by unusually patient storytelling. They deserve the kind of praise that has been lavished upon Tarsem’s The Fall and Miyazaki’s Spirited Away. Their sumptuous style is so enthralling, it can take two or even three viewings before you begin to appreciate the complexity of the storytelling.

With Coraline, master stop-motion animator Henry Selick (The Nightmare Before Christmas, Corpse Bride, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou) takes a giant leap forward, embracing and mastering advanced 3D technology. Watching Coraline, we feel like we’re looking through a window at a fully-dimensional fantasy world, just as last year’s concert documentary U2 3Dgave moviegoers the immersive experience of being up front at a massive, rapturous rock show. As Robert Davis insightfully noted at Daily Plastic, this is not the showy, make-the-audience-jump kind of trickery. This is an exciting new frontier for filmmakers, employing 3D in ways that enhance visual art instead of distracting us from it. It’s a magnificent achievement, and a breathtaking theatrical experience. Don’t miss it.

As a reinvention of Alice in WonderlandCoraline is equal parts funny and frightening. This isn’t a cute story for the kids. It feels more like a grisly European fairy tale—the kind where the world is cruel, and villains are likely to swallow central characters whole.

Coraline is the precocious, blue-haired daughter of two writers, and at the beginning of the film the family is moving into new digs. It’s a handsome new home––a grand Victorian structure, with a phenomenally flexible Russian mouse trainer living upstairs, and two ex-Vaudevillian spinsters with a large collection of Scotty dogs (living and dead) in the basement. (Note: The moving van says RANFT MOVERS, and the movers look like the late Pixar animator, Joe Ranft.)

Lonely and restless, Coraline annoys her parents and gets snippy with an awkward neighbor kid named Wybie. (Wybie isn’t in Gaiman’s novel; he was probably added by somebody who worried that boys in the audience would lose interest in this troublemaking girl.) Before long, she gets distracted by a spooky rag doll which seems to move when she’s not looking. Sure enough, the doll’s baiting Coraline toward the twilight zone, where she’ll be offered an existence that’s more to her liking.

When Coraline goes through the looking glass—or rather, through a door in the wall––Selick sweeps us away into a world full of 3D wonders. There’s a frenzied circus of performing mice, and a moonlit garden alive with fantastic flytraps and glowing snapdragons (yes, they’re real dragons). Giant insects serve as moving furniture. And meals look positively scrumptious.

Why go back home? Coraline’s grouchy parents are both more interested in their careers and computers than their daughter. Mealtime is horrific, and everything is boring. But here in the dreamworld, Coraline’s “Other Mother” fixes her whatever she likes, and her “Other Father” composes lively, affectionate songs about her.

Ah, but those who know fairy tales can see it coming. Coraline’s going to learn the price of a permanent residency in wonderland. Her Other Mother explains she’ll have to pluck out her peepers and sew buttons in their place. And when Coraline finds the imprisoned souls of other children, eyeless and colorless, she realizes that her Other Mother’s wicked needle is stitching a sticky web of lies.

Now it’s a matter of outwitting her captor, whose gradual transformation from a smiling Stepford Wife into a spidery monster akin to H.R. Giger’s Alien is one of the film’s most astonishing achievements.

Alas, the film has a rather flimsy finale. It makes sense that Coraline must survive a showdown with the wicked witch, find her missing parents, and set everybody free. But her “Hey, look over there!” solution, combined with a lucky guess, feels arbitrary and insubstantial for a story so rich with meaningful metaphors.

Still, Coraline is one of the most sophisticated, complex, and rewarding works of American fantasy cinema. Gaiman and Selick refuse to idealize anybody, including their heroine. Coraline isn’t entirely likeable, but she is learning to outgrow her selfish appetites, take some responsibility, distrust appearances, reach out to others in need, and find her way in the world.

She may end up healthier, wiser, and more conscientious than her parents, who still need some measure of rescuing even as the film concludes. I’m impressed, but also bothered: Are Gaiman and Selick so cynical that they find Coraline’s desire for loving, attentive parents unrealistic?

In Part Two of “Gaiman’s Girls,” I’ll revisit MirrorMask.