The mescaline-trip-tinged Coraline is like Pan’s Labyrinth without the self-serious pretense to prestige. Director Henry Selick’s first return to stop motion animation in 13 years (and his first full non-Monkeybone movie without Tim Burton’s guiding hand) centers on the title character, a little girl bored both by her relocation to a baroque, off-the-map manor and her inattentive parents, who won’t indulge her adventurous spirit. Serendipitously, she discovers a small, wallpapered-over door in her gray, unfurnished living room; though bricked-up by day, by night it leads to an other-dimensional Wonderland, opening onto a rabbit-hole-ish portal, a fleshy touch-tunnel reminiscent of the birth canal. It’s as though she’s crawling back into the womb: in this Edenic dream place, the mirror (or, looking-glass!) opposite of her dreary waking life, she is freed from responsibility and self-reliance. Here, her doppelgangic “other parents,” eerily boasting black buttons for eyes, dote on her endlessly and pack her itinerary with neat activities: they treat her to junk food surfeit in between rodent circuses and acrobatic stage shows, each a stunning set piece wedged into the gothic-psychedelia story. The toys come to life, the photographs can talk, the gardens grow lushly.
But the ostensible paradise soon assumes an air of menace. As motherly love and attention reveal themselves as malevolent obsession, Coraline settles into a child-aimed parable about learning to be independent; realizing that the grass isn’t always greener; forgiving your parents their faults; and accepting life in all of its mundane and colorless glory. It’s about the necessity of being, so to speak, “reborn” — as an adult. As such, the movie might be thematically unremarkable, even dishearteningly cynical, but it compensates with an unpredictable visual vocabulary that’s anything but.