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Plenty of people dismiss animated features as mere "cartoons."

These days, however, far too many live-action movies truly are cartoons — flat, exaggerated and dumbed-down.

But "Coraline" — the latest animated feature from stop-motion wizard Henry Selick — exhibits far more artistry, and more humanity, than plenty of so-called "real" movies.

Thanks (or no thanks) to his association with Tim Burton, Selick doesn’t get the credit he deserves for directing 1993’s "The Nightmare Before Christmas," which has become a holiday-season staple.

Selick struck out on his own for 1996’s fanciful "James and the Giant Peach," based on the book by Roald Dahl.

And with "Coraline," the animator adapts another storybook favorite: Neil Gaiman’s satisfyingly shivery tale of a little girl whose curiosity leads her to some very unsettling discoveries.

Think Dorothy longing to explore somewhere over the rainbow.

Or Alice venturing forth — not into Wonderland, but through the looking-glass, where she finds a curiously familiar yet slightly off-kilter world.

That’s precisely what happens to Coraline (voiced by Dakota Fanning). Not Caroline, as she reminds everyone who keeps mispronouncing her name.

Naturally, Coraline’s parents (voiced by "Desperate Housewives’ " Teri Hatcher and "The Daily Show’s" John Hodgman) don’t do that.

They’re too busy typing away at their computers to do anything else, now that they’ve uprooted the family and moved from snowy Michigan to Ashland, Ore.

Home to one of America’s great Shakespeare festivals, Ashland provides an ideal opportunity for Coraline’s parents to indulge their mutual interest in gardening. Unfortunately, Coraline’s parents don’t seem to have much interest in helping her grow.

But at least their new abode — a pink Victorian mansion that’s been divided into apartments — provides some extremely eccentric neighbors to satisfy Coraline’s appetite for adventure.

There’s impish neighbor Wybie (Robert Bailey Jr.), who likes to eat bugs. Or Mr. Bobinsky (Ian McShane), a Russian acrobat who insists that the deliveries of noxiously aromatic cheese are for his endlessly-in-rehearsal circus mice. And two other showbiz veterans, Miss Spink and Miss Forcible (played by "Absolutely Fabulous" veterans Jennifer Saunders and Dawn French), still behave as though they’re headlining such risqué entertainments as "King Leer." But these outsize characters lose their allure once Coraline discovers a tiny door at the base of a wall — one that opens to a cavelike passage leading to an alternate reality that looks very like her own.

Except that Coraline’s parents, rather than ignoring her, indulge her every whim. Rather than a drab space, her room resembles a fairy-tale realm. Mr. Bobinsky’s mouse circus is a genuine wow — and the Misses Spink and Forcible return to the stage.

Indeed, Coraline’s alternate world is ever so enticing — except, perhaps, for the black buttons that have replaced everyone’s eyes, an unsettling signal that not all is quite right in this tidy paradise.

Clearly, "Coraline" isn’t geared toward the littlest ones, even though they might delight, along with everyone else, in the movie’s pop-up storybook look. (And yes, by all means, see "Coraline" in 3-D; the effects enhance rather than overwhelm the imaginative imagery.)

Once the movie’s dark psychological dreamscape (or, more accurately, nightmare-scape) takes hold, however, "Coraline" delves into some truly macabre territory, with plenty to ponder in the "be careful what you wish for" category.

Yet "Coraline" also has some piercing insights regarding the importance of being yourself — and how vital it is to approach life with your eyes open. (That’s a lot easier to do if you don’t have shiny black buttons where your eyes ought to be.)

Selick’s screenplay takes its time introducing, and developing, Coraline’s weirdly fascinating world, but there’s so much to enjoy along the way that it matters not a whit.

Visually, "Coraline" emerges as a quiet stunner. It’s got eye-popping sequences, to be sure, but they exist to serve the story, not the other way around. (Which is exactly as it should be.)

The movie’s all-star vocal ensemble adds intriguing quirks to characters who are nothing if not quirky, from Keith David’s inscrutably know-it-all cat to Fanning’s feisty Coraline. And Hatcher has a field day parodying her "Desperate Housewives" day job as Coraline’s frazzled real-life mom — and her too-good-to-be-true reflection, who inhabits the alluring alternate reality.

Yet it’s the stop-motion figures themselves who steal the show. They’re so vivid and expressive, in both body and facial movements, that they cease being mere puppets and take on a life all their own.

Ideally, that’s what movie characters should always do. But sometimes it takes a cartoon to lead the way.

Contact movie critic Carol Cling at ccling@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0272.

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