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‘Coraline’ is a creepy new classic

Animated tale has a strong young heroine—but it might be too dark for the little ones.

Whether or not they’re adaptations of classic fables, animated films often wind up being parables that contain morals for young viewers about believing in yourself, being kind to others, not trading your voice to sea witches, whatever.

But “Coraline” stands out among recent animated features because its message is aimed at parents: Pay attention to your kids, because if you don’t, someone else will.

Based on the story by Neil Gaiman, the film introduces us to Coraline (voiced by Dakota Fanning), who’s smart without being precocious and energetic without being spunky. She’s just been dragged to a new home in the middle of nowhere by her parents (Teri Hatcher and John Hodgman), gardening writers who hate going outdoors and who spend all their time staring into computer monitors.

Left to her own devices, Coraline gets to know her eccentric neighbors, all of whom seems to have ties to the shaggier ends of show business — upstairs is Mr. Bobinsky (Ian McShane), an acrobat who’s training mice to become a circus act, while living in the cellar are Misses Spink and Forcible (Jennifer Saunders and Dawn French), who had a saucy vaudeville act sometime between the two world wars.

Coraline’s one friend of her own age is oddball Wybie (Robert Bailey, Jr.), who warns her that his grandmother’s sister disappeared during their childhood in the very house where Coraline now lives. That bit of news doesn’t keep Coraline from traveling through a hidden door where she finds an idealized alternate universe where her parents are loving and doting, Bobinsky’s mice put on extraordinary shows and the ladies downstairs are young and talented.

One oddity among many: everyone in this alternate universe has buttons where their eyes should be. And when the seemingly friendly Other Mother (also Hatcher) in this strange new world tells Coraline she can stay forever if she’ll trade her eyes for her own pair of buttons, our heroine realizes things are more dangerous than she’d imagined. Can Wybie’s enigmatic cat (Keith David) help Coraline out of this jam?

In an era where Disney makes money hand over fist by selling little girls on the idea of being pretty, passive Princesses — Belle from “Beauty and the Beast” always wears her yellow gown but never holds a book in this product line — it’s thrilling to get a heroine like Coraline, who’s proactive, occasionally bratty and always very much her own person. The movie goes to some creepy places that will scare all but the hardiest little kids, but tween girls and boys alike should take this darkly exciting movie to heart.

“Coraline” marks a real triumph for writer-director Henry Selick, who never gets the credit due him for “The Nightmare Before Christmas” and whose lovely adaptation of “James and the Giant Peach” is a neglected modern classic of stop-motion animation. The world he’s created for “Coraline” — which you should really catch in 3-D if you can — brilliantly captures his gifts as both an animator and a storyteller. (The scene with the performing mice, for instance, starts out looking like something right out of a vintage George Pal Puppetoon, only to switch to a POV shot of a cycling mouse going down a circular ramp that only the latest technologies could allow.)

In the same way that movies like “Waltz with Bashir” and “Persepolis” open up the possibilities of animated storytelling for adults, “Coraline” dares aim above the heads of toddlers. And while girls who’ve recently swapped “Hannah Montana” for black eyeliner might be the film’s target audience, it’s for anyone old enough to know that family togetherness can have its dark moments.