At the outset, everything in this netherworld seems custom made for Coraline and her complaints about the real world. In this other world, her parents are attentive to her every need, the annoying neighbor boy doesn't talk (just smiles creepily), and Coraline gets to attend theatre performances and a circus of mice. The catch comes, however, when Coraline's new mother wants Coraline to trade in her eyes for a pair of buttons and join this world and its other button-eyed inhabitants forever. The more Coraline resists, the more this dreamworld turns into a nightmare, and Coraline must save herself, her real parents, and even some trapped souls from the sinister reality of this other world. Sounds awesome, right? And it is, for the most part.
Let's be clear. The stop-animation in the film is beautiful. The 3D glasses component also adds to the illusion and lets the viewer really see the layers of Coraline's macabre, surreal, attractive, textured universe. Coraline strikes a remarkably consistent tone of being in a dark lucid dream, even in the parts of the film that take place in "the real world." The dialogue is interesting and unexpected. The score by Bruno Coulais is darkly etherial and fills the dusty spaces of Coraline's gothic house with a cathedral-esque atmosphere. Coraline is a delight to the senses, especially to those with darker tastes. One is almost content to linger in Coraline's world indefinitely, continuing to explore its rich and haunting layers for hours.
Indeed, I feel that the first half, perhaps even the first two-thirds of the film does just what I described above. It lingers and explores and reveals itself to us over the course of an hour. Some might actually describe the first half of the movie as slow, and I don't completely disagree, but I don't mind it either. The film knows it is showing us something visionary, and it gives the viewer plenty of time to take everything in. While I was sitting in the theatre, I heard multiple "oooh's" and "aaahs" as this door would open or as that flower would bloom.
But the film has to come to an end, and at some point, the plot must take over in order to wrap things up. While the first half or two-thirds of the movie had this languid dream-like pace, the climatic action of the third act felt rushed. I have not read Neil Gaiman's book, but I found the game sequence a little unfulfilling. For all this world's mystery, vividness, and terror, Coraline manages to unravel the whole thing pretty easily in about ten minutes, and with a rock. There are also some plot points that could be tighter or better integrated into the film. Again, the rock. Where does it come from? Why do the two old actresses have it? How do they seem to know that Coraline needs it? Also, the cat. The cat is really the only concrete connection between the real world and the other world that remains unchanged. We are told that he can move in and out of the world as he wishes, more or less without fear. Why? Again, I haven't read the book, but I think these are loose ends that could be better explained without that much effort (certainly by people as creative as Gaiman and Selick), and having them better integrated into the logic of Coraline's world would only serve the overall illusion.
I realize the film has largely marketed itself as a kids' movie, but I think most viewers will sense that it is reaching for something greater: timelessness. Will it become the cult hit for alternative-dressing highschool and college kids like The Nightmare Before Christmas has? (something it is obviously striving for--there are a lot of midwestern hipster girls who will be attracted to Dakota Fanning's credible attempt at a Michigan accent, Coraline's chuck sneakers, blue hair, colorful leggings, and hand-knit sweaters) Or will it achieve something less permanent like James and the Giant Peach or The Corpse Bride (other films hailing from the Selick and/or Tim Burton school of stop animation)? I think Coraline gets closer than (and surpasses at least visually) all the rest, but only time will tell.