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Stars: Voices: Dakota Fanning, Teri Hatcher, John Hodgman, Dawn French, Jennifer Saunders, Ian McShane, Keith David

Director: Henry Selick

This animated children's fantasy, a darker and spookier sideshoot of Alice in Wonderland, is too scary by half for most under-sixes, or any tots of a nervous disposition. Certainly the characters with button eyes are the stuff of nightmares, and it comes as no surprise that the same director also made The Nightmare Before Christmas.

One of the outstanding features of the film - apart from its imaginative production design - a love child of Yellow Submarine and Terry Gilliam's work for the Monty Python TV shows - is the inspired voice work of Dakota Fanning, who plays the wilful but courageous 11-year-old Coraline, who moves, with parents (Hatcher, Hodgman) who love her but have little time for her, from Michigan to the 'Pink Palace', a ramshackle mansion in the wilds of Oregon, where eccentric 'neighbours' live in other parts of the house.

These include the heavily bosomed Misses Spink and Forcible (French & Saunders), and spidery acrobat Bobinsky (McShane), as well as a hunchback boy and his equally odd-shaped cat.

In one room, there's a little papered-over door that opens on to a brick wall, but one night the adventurous Coraline opens it to find a spiral tunnel leading to a parallel world, where her Other Father plays jolly tunes on the piano and her Other Mother plies her with sumptuous meals. This seems like paradise, but when Other Mother refers to herself as Better Mother, the intelligent Coraline begins to smell a rat - in more ways than one, the spring-heeled pink mice that lead her to the other world being not quite what they seem.

And when Other Mother tells Coraline that she can stay forever if she lets her replace her eyes with buttons like everyone else there, it's time to turn and run. Alas, Coraline will need more than a little luck - and help from the cat - if she's to escape Other Mother's clutches and rescue the souls of children trapped there.

There's much to admire in this stunningly-designed piece, but - despite elements that seem borrowed from elsewhere (the tunnel from Alice, the hand-held circle through which one can see spellbound things as they really are from The Spiderwick Chronicles- the story doesn't quite grip or fascinate in the way that it might, and its grotesques, apart from the cat, have little real character. Tough-minded girls between seven and 12 will perhaps form its most appreciative audience.

David Quinlan

USA/UK 2008. UK Distributor: Universal. Technicolor.
101 minutes. 3D. UK certificate: PG.

Guidance ratings (out of 3): Sex/nudity 0, Violence/Horror 0, Drugs 0, Swearing 0.

Review date: 03 May 2009