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Through the Good-Looking Glass

“Coraline” is yet another striking if somewhat confused animated movie.

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Under what circumstances is it OK for a young child to find a door to an alternate universe and leave his or her family behind for the better one behind it?

This normal kids' fantasy becomes a reality for the titular preteen (voiced by Dakota Fanning) in the animated feature “Coraline” (pronounced like Caroline). She discovers an “other mother” and an “other father,” along with better versions of her entire neighborhood, behind a small door in the mansion-sized house where her family has recently moved. Based on the book by Neil Gaiman, “Coraline” is a ravishing visual treat, even if by the end you wonder why it was created.

Much like the other child protagonists prevalent in contemporary children's media, Coraline is self-sufficient despite having self-centered, aloof, incompetent parents (Teri Hatcher and John Hodgman) — garden-book writers who aren't interested in providing their child with a healthy meal, much less planting the ingredients for one. The father looks sickly and the mother frumpy and frazzled. Neither has time or patience for Coraline, shooed away to explore the family's new run-down mansion, called the Pink Palace, a decrepit apartment building that houses a Russian acrobat (Ian McShane), a couple of former burlesque actresses (Jennifer Saunders and Dawn French) well past their prime, and a bunch of equally odd pets and random animals, including a cat (Keith David) that can talk under certain circumstances.

Though Coraline's real life might seem strange enough for anyone, she also finds that parallel world behind that tiny door, where everything is the same — only much better, at least from a kid's point of view. At first afraid because her new mom and dad and everyone else have creepy buttons for eyes, Coraline soon warms to the better food, friendlier neighbors and magical environs that seem provided just for her. Of course there's more to the secret world than good food and entertainment, including ghost children in need of rescue and a big, bad boogieman to thwart by the end, broken up by a couple of fun musical numbers. Amid it all are the simple friendships Coraline builds with the talking cat and two versions of a geeky but well-meaning local boy named Wybie (Robert Bailey Jr).

The movie was directed by Henry Selick, the animation wiz behind “The Nightmare Before Christmas” (Tim Burton's name was simply slapped on the project at the last minute, according to a recent interview in the Onion). It is indisputably a technical achievement and visual marvel. You may be as amazed as I was to learn it was made using stop-motion animation, the venerable technique used (as in “Nightmare”) to animate creatures as diverse as “King Kong” and “Gumby.” “Coraline” is to those what computer-animated “Toy Story” is to early Mickey Mouse. Projected in many theaters using the new RealD 3-D technology, the film is as smooth as Buzz Lightyear's dome, yet somehow as tactile and realistic looking as solid objects.

As admirable as the marvelous visuals are, they don't hide a difficulty discerning what it's all supposed to be about. “Coraline” is a children's movie leaning toward adulthood, far more serious in tone than the rambunctious previews of back-talking rodents that preceded it, but without quite the substance of a drama for adults. In some ways it's reminiscent of a fairytale by the Brothers Grimm, where children get themselves into deep trouble by disobeying their parents. But it's instantly apparent that Coraline would do well to disobey hers, and there's no such overarching moral to be found.

Coraline has some fantastic adventures, but she begins and ends the story much the same, with almost no growth or learning as a character, despite the abnormally long running time for a kid flick. Ironically, the people in the real version of her life metamorphose into pleasant, responsible adults by the end for no reason at all, making it extremely difficult to discern a point, at least one that makes any sense.

Such complaints might seem like they themselves belong in a parallel world, where many fine new movies reside waiting to be watched. But like “Wall-E” this past summer, “Coraline” is yet another stylish if somewhat confused animated feature to save us from a multiplex otherwise filled with largely forgettable live-action fare. Its mesmerizing 3-D animation offers a world you'll want to visit at least once, even if its lack of solid reasoning keeps you from coming back. (PG-13) 100 min. HHHII S

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