In Hollywood, virtually any screen success is slavishly copied, to the point where a horde of major studios—Disney included—have followed Pixar and DreamWorks into CGI, hoping that the medium alone accounts for the box-office bounty of Toy Story 2 and Shrek. So why didn't The Nightmare Before Christmas's massive cult following spark a similar flood of morbidly funny stop-motion movies, all grabbing after that phat Nightmare loot?
Maybe Nightmare director Henry Selick set the bar too high, with his focus on impeccable craft and astonishingly intricate design. But while the 16 years since his last stop-motion film haven't seen any feature-length competition except Corpse Bride, he hasn't lowered his standards. His second fully stop-motion animated feature, Coraline, instead reaches even higher, and the results are nothing short of magical.
The story, drawn from Neil Gaiman's short novel of the same name, follows a snappish, snarky girl named Coraline whose writer parents whisk her away to a countryside boarding house, then promptly ignore her. While sulking her days away, she finds a passageway to an alternate world, in which her oddball neighbors, distracted parents, and dull surroundings all exist as wonder-filled mirror-opposites focused entirely on entertaining and impressing her. She quickly becomes addicted to the other world, but naturally there's a price to pay for admission, starting with the fact that the mirror-world folk all have buttons for eyes, and she's expected to sacrifice her eyes to the needle as well.
Selick's script plays up the colorful fantasy possibilities of Gaiman's perfect world, in a series of amazing sequences where mechanical mice, independently mobile flowers, and hideously near-naked old ladies perform for Coraline's pleasure. But he also taps into a playfully Burton-esque streak of delicious dread that's as much Beetlejuice as Nightmare. Gaiman poised the story—one of his tightest and slyest—at the nightmarish border of traditional fairy tales, and Selick expands it while respecting its strong characters and eerie tone. He brings it to life as a piece of stunningly mobile art, a lovingly detailed, beautifully constructed clockwork contraption with CGI fluidity and handmade soul. Like Selick's Nightmare, it demands repeat viewings for the craft alone. Also like Nightmare, it seems like an act that no one could possibly follow, except maybe Selick himself.