‘Coraline’ far out in front of the animated-film pack

Posted Feb. 12, 2009, at 6:20 p.m.

In theaters

CORALINE, written and directed by Henry Selick, 100 minutes, rated PG.

Henry Selick’s beautifully rendered stop-animated film “Coraline,” from a script he based on Neil Gaiman’s popular book, is so masterfully realized, it already has staked its claim as one of the animated movies to beat at next year’s Academy Awards.

It’s that good, so whatever animated movies follow it better bring it, because this film has the chops to crush all newcomers flat.

Available locally in 2-D and 3-D (I saw the 2-D version), the movie comes from the director of “James and the Giant Peach” and “The Nightmare Before Christmas,” but unlike those movies, it was not produced by Tim Burton. Nevertheless, his influence rings clear throughout, and as such, fans of “Peach,” “Nightmare” and Burton should have a solid idea of what to expect as “Coraline” begins.

And what an unsettling beginning it is.

The opening credits involve the ghostly unstuffing of a floating doll, which on paper doesn’t sound too terrifying, really, but the way it’s handled here, with the doll’s foamy guts and button eyes being removed while needles pierce its deflated body and then stitch its gaping mouth shut, there’s something undeniably unnerving about the visuals.

Once restuffed, the end product is a doll that looks a lot like Coraline Jones (voice of Dakota Fanning), an unhappy tween with blue hair and a bluer mood who recently has moved with her distracted parents into an apartment in the Oregon wilds.

The house in which they now live is a massive Victorian, with three other tenants sharing the two other apartments. They include two bawdy former burlesque performers (Dawn French and Jennifer Saunders), and Mr. Bobinsky (Ian McShane), a balloon-bellied ringleader of his own private circus.

In them, Coraline seeks escape from the uncomfortable truth of modern-day life — her mother (Teri Hatcher) and father (John Hodgmen) are working so hard to pay the bills, they don’t have much time or patience for her. Coraline’s mother is particularly grumpy and unloving — she’d rather blog about gardening than tend to her own flower. As for Coraline’s father, he’s a distracted mess who lives so deeply in his head, he has no eyes for Coraline.

From them both Coraline longs to escape, so when into her life comes an opportunity to do so, she pulls an Alice and slips through a small, hidden door. Through it is a tunnel that leads into a parallel world, where Coraline meets her Other Mother and Other Father, who might have buttons for eyes, sure, but my, are these two ever nice to her.

Other Mother cooks and smiles. Other Father addresses Coraline with a directness she has never known. It’s all good, too good, really, as Coraline comes to know with a growing sense of fear as she realizes she’s up against the dark and otherworldly.

After the recent “WALL-E,” “Coraline” is a movie whose story doesn’t come before its superb animation — it matches it. This isn’t eye candy for the sake of eye candy — it’s a movie that unabashedly holds up a mirror to its audience and wonders how many children and parents are seeing themselves reflected. This will be uncomfortable for some, but it is just this aspect that deepens the movie and makes it relevant. “Coraline” is a fantastic tale sheathed in delight, mystery and wackery, but look into its bleak crevices and behold what for many the family unit has become.

Grade: A

On Blu-ray disc

SIDEWAYS, directed by Alexander Payne, written by Payne and Kevin Tent, 124 minutes, rated R.

Alexander Payne’s Academy Award-winning “Sideways” is the story of two men who can’t let go of their pasts or figure out who they are in the present. They are former college roommates on the cusp of middle age who have remained friends in spite of having little in common, with one major exception: Each is a wreck whose future is in flux.

There’s Miles (Paul Giamatti), the failed novelist with the failed life whose failed marriage to Victoria (Jessica Hecht) ended in divorce. He’s annoyingly cerebral, cynical and depressing, but because he’s so recognizably human and has been wounded so completely by life, he’s nevertheless likable. You pull for him.

Miles’ one point of pride is the one thing that might undo him — he’s an enthusiastic wine connoisseur with a penchant for Pinot, a fragile grape that’s so difficult to nurture, it might as well be Miles himself.

Equally screwed up is Jack (Thomas Haden Church), the soon-to-be-married former jock cum actor who embarks with Miles on a road trip through Northern California the week before his wedding. On their trip, they plan to get sideways at the many local vineyards hugging the highways, while also reconnecting over rounds of golf.

At least that’s how Miles sees it.

Jack has other ideas. He plans on enjoying his last week of bachelorhood having sex with any woman who will have him, and he plans to return the favor by getting his glum friend some action of his own. The women they meet are extraordinary. Stephanie (Sandra Oh, Payne’s wife) is smart, sexy, vibrant; she favors Jack. Her friend Maya (Virginia Madsen), is a fellow wine connoisseur with an intellect that rivals Miles’. She takes a shine to him. Trouble is, since neither woman knows about Jack’s pending marriage, deceit is allowed to unfurl freely amid the growing thorns of affection. As such, the movie becomes electrifying.

Working from a script he co-wrote with Jim Taylor, Payne mines a depth of emotion that’s surprising given the gross emotional limitations of his male characters. The game cast is excellent, with Madsen so good, she has yet to match this performance, and Giamatti proving with seamless ease how he can get to the heart of a crippled soul and make it his own.

Grade: A

WeekinRewind.com is the site for Bangor Daily News film critic Christopher Smith’s blog, DVD giveaways and archive of movie reviews. Smith’s reviews appear Mondays, Fridays and weekends in Lifestyle, as well as on bangordailynews.com. He may be reached at christopher@weekinrewind.com.

• • •

DVD Corner

Renting a DVD? BDN film critic Christopher Smith can help. Below are his grades of recent releases. Those in bold print are new to stores this week.

Appaloosa — B

Baby Mama — B

Bangkok Dangerous — D

Body of Lies — C

Changeling — A-

Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian — B-

The Dark Knight — A

Deception — D+

Definitely, Maybe — B+

Dr. Seuss? Horton Hears a Who! — B-

The Duchess — B+

Eagle Eye — D

Forbidden Kingdom — B-

Forgetting Sarah Marshall — B-

Get Smart: DVD, Blu-ray — C-

Hancock — C-

The Happening — B

Hellboy II: The Golden Army — B+

Igor — C-

The Incredible Hulk — B+

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull — B-

Iron Man — A-

Kit Kittredge: An American Girl — B+

Leatherheads — B-

Mamma Mia! The Movie — B+

My Best Friend’s Girl — D

Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist — B+

Pineapple Express — C+

Prom Night — D

The Ruins — C+

Saw V: BOMB

The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants 2 — B

Tropic Thunder — B

W. — C-

Wall-E — A

Wanted — B+

X-Files: I Want to Believe — B-

Zack and Miri Make a Porno — C+

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