Here's the thing about Neil Gaiman: he can lose you in the crucial first minutes of entering his worlds. He steeps his narrative in the status-quo right at the beginning and more often than not makes you wonder why you're making this journey with him. Stay with him when things "get complicated" and stay through the more-than-satisfying denouement (that makes you wonder why nobody thought of this before) and you find a satisfying experience, be it novel, graphic novel, comic book, movie or radio play.
"Where you going, Neil?"
Get past the "Where you going, Neil?" section and you'll do fine and better-than-fine because Gaiman is that good a writer. He makes dark thoughts bright and sunny, turns over the rock of myths to see what's underneath and take you places you don't want to go until you've come back, breathless. He's the fellow who went someplace completely different with DC's "Sandman" and made you never look at Death the same way again. He wrote the Occidental dialog for "Princess Mononoke." His graphic-then-prose novel "Stardust" became "a movie that nobody saw," quite gob-smacking Paramount who thought it'd be a runaway hit. He's become a best-selling, award-winning novelist and he's always threatening to become "The Next Big Thing." As it is, he's a Cult, a Best-Kept-Secret-That-You-Want-To-Stay-Secret, peaking around the corners of pop-culture hiding in plain sight, never needing to put his hand in front of the camera, because nobody wants to take his picture...yet.
"Coraline," his 2002 novel for kids, is a conglomeration of a lot of children's stories for children who don't want to read anything more than twenty years old. It has a lot of similarities to Ancient Things that have gone before. There are alternative worlds, a quest, a game, there's the "no place like home" message, the familiars and un-familiars, the outcast you can't depend to depend on and the deep well and the deep secrets. Pick a myth, any myth. It shimmers with "Alice in Wonderland," sings along with "The Wizard of Oz," waves at Tim Burton and horror movies and takes a turn through "Pan's Labyrinth." Complain about "plagiarism" all you want--they all spring from the Ancients, and this is just the latest scramble of the cultural DNA.
This is familiar table-top real-estate to Henry Selick, the old-school film-maker who likes to do things one-frame-at-a-time. His work directing "The Nightmare Before Christmas" and "James and the Giant Peach" were already mind-blowing, but "Coraline"—still stop-motion, but with a pixie-dust-pinch of CG—takes him out of everybody's shadow except ones of his own making. I saw it in 2-D, but it must be an incredible accomplishment in three. If Gaiman's source is a rich stew of Myth, Selick knows just how to bring it to a proper frothy boil, and spice it up to make it uniquely his. It's as different in look and feel (but not movement) from his previous films as can be, but the detail and design of the thing is glorious.*
One of those movies you don't want to reveal too much of, but just encourage the effort to experience it.
"Caroline"...uh, "Coraline" is a Full-Price Ticket. See it in 3-D, if you can.
* Confession-time: Some movies knock me out, literally. There's a class of movies so dense, so full of "big" ideas that they make me fall asleep. It's like the Brain becomes so loaded, it shuts down prematurely. I noticed this phenomenon seeing "Time Bandits." Then, "Brazil." Then, "The Adventures of Baron Munchausen," and "The Fisher King." Yeah, I buy a Coke at Terry Gilliam films, or I see them twice. "The Nightmare Before Christmas" did it to me. But not "Star Wars." Not "The Lord of the Rings." Not "The Leopard." No Pixar films have caused me to "crash." I recently saw the four-hour "Che" without a hint of drowsiness. "Coraline" did. I think it has to do with the density of the image, and the speed with which new ideas and new concepts come at you (Foreign or sub-titled films don't do that to me, either, except a Kurosawa film, now and then, and boring, worthless films actually keep me awake at night). I have no explanation for this phenomenon or why those films, but it is occasionally frustrating to me. In case I'm not the only one this happens to, get some sleep before you see "Coraline" or bring some candy, or buy a drink at the theater. Don't miss a frame.