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'Coraline' is visually brilliant, but too gloomy for kids

Coraline (PG)

2 stars out of 4

There is no other genre in movies that continually strives for innovation more than animation. With technology seemingly surpassing imagination at every turn, it challenges filmmakers to exceed their grasp and "Coraline" is a perfect example. It is a technically superior movie that might wow adult animation fans but will also surely leave children - always the ultimate target audience - perplexed if not completely horrified.

Visually brilliant but at the same time brittle, detached and gloomy, "Coraline," based on the 2002 book by Neil Gaiman, follows the dreary look and attitude of "The Nightmare Before Christmas" and "The Corpse Bride," the two animated films produced by Tim Burton. Like "Coraline," Burton's films are dark and macabre yet snare cult audiences with their loopy, tongue-in-cheek humor.

Burton underling and "Nightmare" director Henry Selick sticks close to his mentor's blueprint here. It's a mix of "Alice in Wonderland" by way of "Beetlejuice" and "The Grapes of Wrath" with a tad of Clive Barker and a little Stephen King minus any glint of humor. If you want your impressionable or easily upset tots to sleep well at night, don't even think about taking them to see this movie.

Coraline (voiced by Conyers native Dakota Fanning) is the naturally inquisitive, unnaturally surly child of two emotionally-detached parents who write gardening books, yet are inexplicably afraid of Mother Nature. For reasons never explained, the family moves into a residence hotel in the middle of nowhere inhabited by buxom stage spinsters and a lone "Yellow Submarine" inspired Russian circus strongman with an army of performing mice.

The mice are about the most "kid friendly" characters in the movie and are seen for roughly two minutes. The rest of the time, Selick delivers a downbeat freak show awash in muted artwork with an iffy plot and flat, uninspired dialogue. The only point the movie succeeds in getting across is that the grass on the other side of the looking glass might look greener but will come at a steep price.

"Coraline" is the first animated feature specifically produced for a 3-D presentation yet there's little in the film that actually warrants it. Unlike "WALL-E," with its varied panoramic long shots, "Coraline" is filled with short and medium close-ups, virtually negating any depth of field that 3-D offers. The latest fad run amuck, the revived 3-D has already worn out its revival welcome and "Coraline" is just the first of roughly three dozen 2009 3-D movies yet to come.

With its art-house attitude, unfriendly approach and nightmare story, the movie will offer little appeal beyond only the most dedicated adult fans of the genre and it's likely that many of them will walk away feeling unmoved and let down. (Focus Features)

E-mail Michael Clark at clarkwriter@mindspring.com.