The movie "Coraline" is based on Neil Gaiman's popular children's book, and its dark wonders and sly wit are presented almost matter-of-factly; it sneaks up on you like a cat in a night-lit hallway. Children who like being scared will get a kick out of this wildly creative movie; adults needn't have a child in...

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A little girl, having entered a mysterious alternative world, asks a cat why it can talk. As casually as you’d imagine a cat might, he replies, “I just can.”

That’s the joy of “Coraline”: Its dark wonders and sly wit are presented almost matter-of-factly, and the movie sneaks up on you like a cat in a night-lit hallway.

A stop-motion animation production from the wizard Henry Selick (“The Nightmare Before Christmas,” “James and the Giant Peach”), it’ll show in 3-D in some theaters, and the added dimension gives the film an eerie, floating quality. But even without 3-D, it’s unique; the meticulous and often whimsical detail of the animation (a very labor-intensive process; this movie was seven years in the making) is a delight. The cat looks like a homespun stuffed animal; the girl, with her toothpick legs (in striped stockings) and shiny blue-tinged hair, makes an appealingly quirky heroine.

But “Coraline” is no exercise in cuteness. It’s a dark tale, based on Neil Gaiman’s popular children’s book, that may well frighten some kids and thrill others. Eleven-year-old Coraline (voiced by Dakota Fanning, and perpetually irritated by everyone calling her Caroline) is a frustrated girl: She’s just moved to rainy Oregon and has nothing to do but watch the neighbors in her rambling apartment house.

One day, she finds a secret door, and through it discovers a strange new world that looks almost like the old one — except that the house is prettily decorated, her Other Mother (Teri Hatcher, in a dual role) pays much more attention to her than her distracted real-life mother, and the cats can talk.

All of this is appealing to Coraline, until creepiness seeps in: The Other Mother looks just like Coraline’s real mother, but has eerie black buttons for eyes — and would like to alter Coraline’s eyes to match, to keep her always. (This is the stuff that’s going to upset sensitive kids; though nothing’s shown and all ends happily, it’s the kind of idea that can cause nightmares.) Things get darker and darker, as the O.M. becomes increasingly scary — she gets skinnier and skinnier, with the emergence of some alarmingly bony cleavage — and Coraline must bravely take action to save her real family.

Swimming in moonlight, “Coraline” dazzles with color and detail, such as the way Coraline’s starry sweater glows in the dark, the busy Busby Berkeley-ish choreography of a mouse circus, the silly lyrics of an unexpected vaudeville show performed by Coraline’s elderly neighbors (“If you go swimmin’/ With bowlegged women … “) or the fact that the snapdragons in the garden are real, tiny dragons.

Children who like being scared will get a kick out of this wildly creative movie; adults needn’t have a child in tow to enjoy it, too.

Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or mmacdonald@seattletimes.com