Picasso mused that every child is born an artist, but that the hard part is how to remain one as he or she grows up. I don't think Picasso meant dexterity with paintbrushes so much as he was talking about the palette of the mind.

No frontier is more surreal or vivid than the imagination of a child. It is a world of curiosity and longing, where even the most seemingly mundane experience can evoke fear or joy. That realm is ripe for storytellers, the best of whom still nurture their inner rugrat, and it is what makes the 3-D stop-animation "Coraline" such an eerie and altogether wondrous movie.

Still, a film that taps the imagination of children does not necessarily make it child-friendly. Based on Neil Gaiman's novel of the same name, "Coraline" deals in baroque imagery that might be too intense for the smallest moviegoers. If your kid is likely to be fazed by creepy rag dolls and giant insects, proceed with caution. The picture is more unsettling than its PG rating would suggest.

Eleven-year-old Coraline Jones (Dakota Fanning, "Push") has just moved into an old Victorian that has been converted into apartments. The girl is bored and lonely, but her parents (Teri Hatcher of TV's "Desperate Housewives" and John Hodgman of TV's "The Daily Show") are workaholics with no time for her. They tell her to explore the house in an effort to keep her out of their hair.

Coraline complies. In a forgotten room, she happens upon a small door — the sort of portal that, in another flick, might lead to the brain of John Malkovich. Coraline finds a skeleton key for it, but is disappointed to learn that the door opens to a brick wall.

At night, however, the door leads to a parallel universe that mirrors Coraline's own life — only everything in this alternate world is more fun and inviting. Her Other Mother and Other Father are cheerful, loving and cater to Coraline's every wish. They lavish her with delicious meals, magical gardens and irresistibly weird vaudeville shows that feature even more eccentric versions of Coraline's eccentric real-life neighbors (Jennifer Saunders and Dawn French of TV's "Absolutely Fabulous," and Ian McShane, "Death Race").

There's only one downside, but it's a doozy: All the inhabitants of this wonderland have big, black buttons where their eyes would be. If Coraline wants to stay, explains her Other Mother, she must agree to have buttons sewn over her peepers.

The smart and spunky Coraline learns the pitfalls of getting everything you desire, as "Coraline" tweaks the self-centeredness of childhood and its concomitant fantasy worlds. The theme is as old as the Brothers Grimm, of course, but that doesn't make it any less relevant.

Written and directed by Henry Selick ("The Nightmare Before Christmas," "James and the Giant Peach"), the film is so stuffed with phantasmagoric imagery as to be intoxicating. Today's computer-generated animation might be nearly flawless, but technical gains can be artistry's loss. "I'm way too old for dolls," Coraline tells her mother at one point.

Fortunately, the filmmakers have no such hang-ups. The film's puppetry and stop-motion effects are lovingly rendered. Selick and his crew reportedly spent two years in pre-production before taking more than 80 weeks to shoot. The results are spectacular, with deliriously inventive creatures who amble with a herky-jerky rhythm that is somewhere between the movement of dreams and distant memories.

Alas, the story itself moves with less intrigue. Selick's visual mastery is undermined by a script that rarely shifts pace and tone. "Coraline" ratchets up the danger too subtly for its own good, with a climax curiously short on excitement. Somewhat baffling is the film's inclusion of a neighbor boy whose primary function seems to be that the animators had captured a nifty hangdog expression for him.

Dramatic flatness is not for lack of effective voice work. Fanning lends a caustic edge to Coraline, while Hatcher captures the spooky side of perkiness. Also memorable is Keith David ("First Sunday") as a talking cat. What fantasy is complete without a talking cat?

Ultimately, "Coraline" has too much visual wit and panache to be tripped up by flaws in narrative. Only the stodgiest of grown-ups could reject the imagination that oozes from every frame. —?Phil Bacharach

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Phil Bacharach


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