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Misadventures in Bizarro World

Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars.

Adapted from a dark childrenís novella by British author Neil Gaiman and directed by Henry Selick, who played a pivotal role in crafting the look of Tim Burtonís Nightmare Before Christmas, Coraline is a visual achievement of the highest order, an endlessly inventive spectacle that represents the first stop-motion animation feature ever filmed in 3-D. Judging by the results, it will not be the last.

Selick, no stranger to tales of ghosts, goblins and ghoulish guardians -- he also directed 1996ís James and the Giant Peach -- seems right at home in Gaimanís cheerfully demented universe, where young Coraline (voiced by Dakota Fanning) yearns for an escape from the hopelessly dreary home she shares with her inattentive parents. She gets her wish when she discovers a doorway to a parallel universe that seems to promise all the pleasures missing from her real life: a colorful wardrobe, a kitchen overflowing with savory treats and parents who hang on her every word. But something is amiss.

Coralineís Other Mother (Teri Hatcher) is a mirror image of the real one, save for her curiously off-putting grin and the cold plastic buttons where her eyes should be, and before long her affections melt away completely. Once her wicked endgame is revealed -- she plans to steal Coralineís soul and banish her parents to an eternity in fantasy hell -- it is up to Coraline to save the day.

Selick, who also wrote the screenplay, remains mostly faithful to Gaimanís twisted fairy tale, which should seem familiar enough to those weaned on classic childrenís stories like Alice in Wonderland and The Wizard of Oz. Yet the thrill of Coraline is not so much in the storytelling, which is competent though not truly exceptional, but in the richness of the animation.

Coraline is a dazzling sensory experience, never more so than when its pint-size heroine crosses over into an alternate reality that is far more colorful and alive than the pallid confines of her Oregon apartment. Here, the 3-D effects seem less like a gimmick than a revelation -- Selickís world, with its lush gardens and cotton-candy cannons, practically jumps off the screen. It is a joy to visit, though as it turns out, you wouldnít want to live there.