As the credits appear, a pair of metallic hands with spindly fingers summons a doll from the dark abyss outside a window. The hands dismantle the doll, which is wearing a pink dress and has curly brown hair, and reassemble it into a new doll with blue hair, a yellow raincoat, and galoshes. Then they send it back into the void.
Coraline Jones (voice: Dakota Fanning
), a girl of 11 or so, moves with her parents, Mel and Charlie (voices: Teri Hatcher
and John Hodgman
), from their house in Michigan to their new home at the Pink Palace Apartments in Oregon. It is a rather dilapidated pink Victorian house divided into three flats, surrounded by forest and shaded by an almost constantly overcast sky. While her parents assist the movers, Coraline goes exploring, taking a stick and using it as a dowsing rod. She lets it guide her along a trail beyond the house until she arrives at the top of the hill. A black cat emerges from the woods and studies her on its perch. Coraline asks if it knows where the old well is before she is startled by an air horn. A bicyclist wearing a skull-painted helmet appears and circles Coraline. After she knocks him off his bike, he removes his helmet and introduces himself as Wybie -- short for Wyborne -- Lovat (voice: Robert Bailey Jr.
), grandson of the owner of the Pink Palace. He shows Coraline the location of the old well, right under her feet, and admits surprise that his grandmother would allow a family with a kid to move in; not even he is allowed near the Pink Palace, though he says he's not supposed to explain why. He pets the cat and explains that he cares for it despite the fact that it's feral before he hears his grandmother calling to him. He mounts his bike and informs Coraline that the stick she's holding is actually poison oak.
Back at the house, as it starts to rain, Coraline attempts to gain the attention of her parents who are busy writing pieces for a gardening catalog (which Coraline finds absurdly ironic since her parents dislike handling dirt). Her mother gives Coraline a doll that looks just like her, telling her that it was left on their porch. Attached to the doll is a note from Wybie explaining that he found it in his grandmother's trunk and thought she would like it since it looks like her. Coraline takes the doll and goes to see her father who tells her to explore the house and write down what she sees ... as long as she will let him work. Doll in hand, Coraline takes note of everything in their flat, including a painting of a sullen-looking boy in blue clothes above the fireplace. Finishing her notes, she discovers that her doll, which she'd left on a nearby table in the drawing room, has mysteriously moved beneath a mattress leaning against the wall. Coraline moves the mattress to find the outline of a small door behind the wallpaper. Noticing a keyhole and no other way to open it, Coraline begs her mother to help her. They find a black skeleton key in a kitchen drawer with a button end and find that it fits the keyhole perfectly. However, when they open the door, they see nothing but a solid brick wall. Irritated, Coraline's mother tells her to let her finish her work.
That evening, Coraline is sent to bed early after complaining about the grimy-looking dinner her father prepared. In the middle of the night, she is awoken by a squeaking sound and looks down to see a mouse in her room. She follows it out of her room and downstairs to the drawing room where it disappears behind the small door in the wall which has been cracked open. Coraline opens the door and discovers that a wide and colorful passage has opened up. She crawls through it and emerges out the other end to find herself in the drawing room again, however, this one is brighter and even the painting of the boy above the fireplace looks cheerful. She smells something from the kitchen and wanders over to find her mother cooking. When her mother turns to greet her, Coraline sees that she has black buttons for eyes. Coraline's shock subsides when her 'mother' explains that she's her Other Mother and that everyone has one. She tells Coraline to collect her Other Father in his study before dinner. Coraline obliges and finds her Other Father, looking lively and fun, playing piano with a pair of puppet hands protruding from it. He sings a song for Coraline, bringing a smile to her face, before they all sit down to dinner.
The Other World food is delightful and served with plenty of flair. Coraline can hardly contain her excitement at finding that her Other parents are more fun than her real ones, showing their enjoyment for mud and explaining that it's a natural remedy for poison oak. When Other Mother offers to play a game, Coraline expresses concern that she'd better go back home and to bed. Other Mother takes Coraline up to her 'other' room, which is strewn with colored streamers and toys that speak, including a picture on her nightstand with her two best friends from Michigan (voices: Harry Selick
and Marina Budovsky
). Her Other Mother rubs mud on the poison oak on her hands before putting Coraline to bed. Coraline quickly falls asleep. She wakes up the next morning to find herself back in her old room. She is disappointed but sees that the poison oak has disappeared from her hands. When she tries to open the small door again, she finds that it's bricked up as before.
She tries to tell her parents all about her adventures the previous night, but they dismiss it as a vivid dream. Her mother suggests she tell her dream to the actresses living downstairs, although she calls them ding-bats. Out on the porch, Coraline trips over a pile of mail addressed to a Mr. Bobinsky; the man who lives upstairs. She goes to his door but is prevented entry by the eccentric Bobinsky (voice: Ian McShane
), a tall and acrobatic Russian man with a blue complexion; possibly due to his role in the Chernobyl cleanup which is indicated by the medal worn on his shirt. He accepts the packages which contain foul-smelling cheese. He tells Coraline (whom he misnames 'Caroline') that he is training circus mice and hopes the cheese will alleviate their apparent musical difficulties. Before Coraline leaves, he leaps down from his balcony to issue a warning from his mice: "They say, 'do not go through little door'."
Halfway accepting her experiences as nothing but a dream, Coraline dismisses the message and heads to the lower flat to visit Miss Spink and Miss Forcible (voices: Jennifer Saunders
and Dawn French
), two retired burlesque actresses who clearly have not gotten over their past days. Coraline is offered tea as the actresses reminisce and tend to their many Scottie dogs, some of which are dead and stuffed on shelves on the wall, dressed in angel outfits. Miss Spink reads Coraline's tea leaves and predicts that she is in danger, seeing a gnarled hand in the leaves, while Miss Forcible sees a giraffe from her perspective.
Coraline goes outside, where a thick fog has covered the ground. She discovers Wybie spying on her with a three-turret lens, although he insists he's hunting for banana slugs. The cat rests on Wybie's shoulders as he skulks around, inspiring Coraline to call him a 'wuss-puss' which insults the cat, though Wybie says he just doesn't like getting his feet wet. The two share laughs as Coraline takes pictures of Wybie holding a slug before he admits that he's never been inside the Pink Palace because his grandmother thinks it's dangerous. He says that his grandmother had a twin sister and, while they lived there as children, she disappeared. His grandmother seems to think she was stolen, but Coraline offers that maybe she just ran away. She asks Wybie about the doll's resemblance to her, but Wybie says that he found it as is and that it must be as old as the house. Coraline is skeptical: why would it look just like her?
That night, Coraline leaves out bits of cheese in her bedroom and goes to sleep, hoping for another visit from the mice. Sure enough, she's woken later by their squeaking and follows them through the open portal. She finds her Other Mother cooking in the kitchen, using the very cheese Coraline laid out. She tells Coraline to fetch her Other Father, who is in the garden. Coraline finds him planting colorful, fluorescent flowers and snapdragons, using a tractor shaped like a praying mantis. Other Father takes Coraline for a ride on the mantis as it sprouts propellors and flies them above the gardens. Overhead, Coraline sees that the entire garden has been fashioned into her likeness. After another bountiful dinner, Other Mother opens the front door to introduce Other Wybie. She explains that she made this one so that he doesn't talk because she thought Coraline would like it. Coraline is pleased with her silent friend and they go to Mr. Bobinsky's flat together for a surprise. Inside, pedal-controlled cannons shoot cotton candy and popcorn machines line the walls. A circus tent is erected in the center of the apartment and Coraline and Other Wybie go in to see Bobinsky's mice put on a musical show, bouncing on circus balls. At the finale, Other Bobinsky appears, looking dapper in a ringmaster's coat and hat, and thanks them for their applause. Coraline is later led to bed, happily satisfied with the night's events, and falls asleep with Other Mother, Other Father, and Other Wybie sitting beside her.
The next morning, Coraline grunts as she finds herself in her own bed once more. Her mother takes her into town the next day to shop for school clothes. They drop off her father at the train station so that he can deliver the latest edition of the catalog to the editor. At the store, Coraline approaches her mother with a pair of colorful gloves which Mel refuses to buy, looking instead at drab and grey uniform pieces. Coraline shuns her mother on the ride home, especially when Mel reveals that she locked the small door after finding rat excrement near it. Seeing that the fridge is nearly devoid of food, Mel offers to buy some groceries and asks Coraline to accompany her. Coraline refuses and Mel leaves, looking slightly saddened. Taking opportunity of her solitude, Coraline takes the skeleton key from its perch and investigates the small door, finding the passage surprisingly open. She eagerly crawls through as the feral cat watches her disapprovingly from outside. In Other World, Coraline finds the house seemingly empty, though the kitchen table is laden with treats and different foods along with a gift box containing a new outfit for her to wear. A note next to it from Other Mother explains that Other Spink and Other Forcible have something to show Coraline after lunch.
Outside, Coraline comes upon the cat and remarks that he must be a copy but is missing the trademark button eyes. She is shocked when the cat speaks (voice: Keith David
). He tells Coraline that he is the real world cat and has the ability to transverse the barriers between worlds, despite Other Mother's attempts to keep him out; she hates cats. He admits it's a type of game they play before warning Coraline of Other Mother's true intentions. He claims Other Wybie told him of the dangers and, when Coraline doesn't believe him, tells her that cats have superior senses. He then detects something in the distance and runs off. Coraline continues to Spink and Forcible's apartment which has been turned into a large auditorium occupied by hundreds of Scottie dogs. She finds Other Wybie in the front row and sits beside him as the show starts. The Spink and Forcible that we know, albeit with painted button eyes, perform individual skits in rather unflattering outfits before their competition for the spotlight brings the stage props crashing down. The curtain closes and the second act starts; Spink and Forcible appear on either end of the stage, standing on diving boards while a bucket of water is pushed to center stage. Then, they literally jump out of their skins as their older facades unzip and their youthful, skinny selves effortlessly swing on trapeze wires. They include Coraline in the act, swinging her around the auditorium and catching her as they land on the bucket, to much applause and barking.
Coraline returns to Other Mother's apartment, raving about the show while Other Wybie stays behind looking sullen. As Other Mother ushers Coraline inside, she motions to Other Wybie to smile. She takes Coraline into the dining room and tells her that, if she wants to, she can stay forever but needs to perform one little thing. She places a box in front of Coraline who opens it to see two black buttons with sewing thread and a needle. Other Mother cheerfully tells Coraline that buttons are available in any color but Coraline vehemently refuses to sew buttons into her eyes. She requests to go to bed early to think things over and goes to her room where she stuffs her talking toys away and hides the picture of her button-eyed friends. She lies in bed and prays to go to sleep.
When she wakes, she jumps out of bed, only to find that she's still in Other World. She goes downstairs and finds Other Father morosely playing the piano with his puppet hands. Coraline demands to see Other Mother because she wants to go home, but Other Father tells her they mustn't talk when 'mother's' not around. When Coraline says that she's going to look for Other Wybie, Other Father tells her there's no point; "Wybie pulled a looooong face and 'mother' didn't like it," his own face elongating horribly as he says so before he is silenced by the puppet hands. Coraline runs outside and begins to walk away from the house. The cat approaches her and they walk together as the Other World begins to deteriorate into nothing. The cat tells Coraline that the Other Mother only created what she knew Coraline would like and soon they find themselves walking straight back towards the house. "Small world," Coraline comments.
The cat reveals that the Other Mother wants her, possibly for something to love ... or to eat. Suddenly, he lunges into a bush and comes out with a circus mouse in his mouth. As his jaws clamp down, the mouse transforms into an ugly sandbag rat. "I don't like rats at the best of times, but this one was sounding an alarm," the cat says before moving on. Coraline walks back into the house and enters the drawing room where the small door has been blocked by a beetle-shaped bureau. The other furniture comes to life, looking like insects, and seats Coraline in front of Other Mother, eating coco beetles. Coraline demands to be allowed to go home but Other Mother grows angry and tells Coraline to apologize as she counts to three. While she counts, her body begins to transform, growing grotesquely tall and elongated. (Eventually she is shown to be a spider.) At the count of three, the disfigured Other Mother grabs Coraline and throws her through a mirror into a dank room with a single bed. She tells Coraline she may come out when she 'learns to be a loving daughter.'
Sensing someone in the room with her, Coraline turns to see three ghostly children, two girls and a boy (voices: Hannah Kaiser
, Aankha Neal
, and George Selick
), who tell her to be quiet, for the Beldam might be listening. (Beldam means ugly old woman, but it has connotations of witchcraft and recalls characters from literature and folklore: the title character of John Keats's poem "La Belle Dame Sans Merci", in which a knight is enthralled by a fairy; and the witch who entices and captures Hansel and Gretel.) The ghosts reveal that they don't remember their names, but remember how the Beldam used dolls in their image to spy on them and see what made them unhappy. They tell how she lured them into Other World, giving them games and treats, telling them that she loved them. Wanting more, the children allowed the Beldam to sew the buttons into their eyes, but she ate up their lives and cast their souls aside, locking them inside the mirror. They say that their eyes were stolen and hidden and ask that, if Coraline escapes, she set their souls free by finding their eyes. Coraline says that she'll try before she's pulled through the mirror by Other Wybie, whose mouth has been sewn into a wide grin. Coraline pulls the thread out before Other Wybie brings her to the small door. He opens it and shoves her through. When she asks him to come with her, he pulls off one of his gloves, revealing that he's nothing inside but sand. He then shuts the door as the Beldam calls for Coraline. She crawls back to the real world and calls out for her real parents.
However, she finds no one home. The groceries that her mother had gone out to get lie on the kitchen table, moldy and covered in flies. When a knock sounds at the door, Coraline eagerly opens it only to see the real Wybie, who tells her that he needs the doll back. His grandmother is angry because the doll once belonged to her missing sister, but Coraline tells him that the doll once looked like the three ghost children. She realizes that the third child, the girl with the braids and ribbons, was Grandma Lovat's missing sister. She brings Wybie upstairs to give him the doll, explaining everything along the way. Coraline describes to an incredulous Wybie how the doll is meant to spy on everything that's wrong with a child's life before the Other Mother gives false promises to trap them. When she can't find the doll, Wybie runs from the house screaming that Coraline is crazy. She throws her shoes at him and runs outside to see her parents' car, but no one is there. A phone call to her father brings no answers either.
Coraline visits Spink and Forcible as Spink is sewing an angel outfit on her dog Angus, claiming that he hasn't been feeling well lately. When Coraline worries about her missing parents, Spink and Forcible break a ball of hard taffy candy to reveal a small triangular seeing stone with a hole in it. They give it to Coraline, saying that it's useful for bad or lost things (they can't agree on which one specifically). Coraline then returns home and creates likenesses of her parents out of pillows in their bed before crying herself to sleep. She wakes up in the middle of the night to see the cat sitting on her chest, looking at her closely. She asks him if he knows where her parents are. He pulls Coraline's doll out from under the bed but, instead of looking like her, the doll is two-faced, resembling each of her parents. In the hallway mirror, Coraline sees an image of her parents shivering in the cold and writing 'help us' on the frosted glass. She goes downstairs and lights a fire on the hearth, throwing the doll into the flames to curl up and burn. Knowing her parents can't return on their own, she resolves to rescue them and dons her favorite army hat, a vest, and puts the triangle stone, some tools, and the skeleton key in her pockets.
As she and the cat go through the small door, the cat pipes up and tells her to challenge the Other Mother to a game; she never refuses games. Though the Beldam won't play fair, this gives Coraline the best chance. When Coraline emerges, she hears her mother calling to her and finds her in the drawing room. She goes to hug her mother, but the figure transforms into the Beldam. She takes the skeleton key from Coraline and, after locking the small door, swallows it. Other Father, reduced to a squat, blubbering mess, puts Coraline into a chair before he is dragged away by the furniture after the Beldam inquires about tending to the garden. The Beldam then takes Coraline into the kitchen to serve her breakfast, asking her again to stay. Coraline proposes a game: if she is able to find her real parents and the eyes of the ghost children, the Beldam must let them all go. If Coraline is unsuccessful, she will stay and let the Beldam sew the buttons into her eyes. Coraline then demands a clue, which the Beldam relents to give: "In each of three wonders I've made just for you, a ghost's eye is lost in plain sight."
Coraline's search begins in the garden, where some hummingbird plants attempt to steal the triangular stone. Finding this curious, Coraline looks through the hole in the stone to see that the world appears grey, except for one colorful ball of light: the first eye. It is disguised as the shift knob on the praying mantis tractor. Other Father starts the tractor and chases Coraline with it. He apologizes, claiming that 'mother' is making him do it. As the mantis chases Coraline across the garden pond's bridge, it collapses, sending the tractor and Other Father into the water. Before he submerges, Other Father grabs the eye and hands it over to Coraline. With the eye in hand, the entire garden dies and turns to stone.
Meanwhile the moon overhead is beginning to eclipse -- a time limit on Coraline's search. She makes her way to Spink and Forcible's place, which has deteriorated. The Scottie dogs now reside on the ceiling, looking more like bats, and the actresses have cocooned themselves in a taffy-like wrapper on the stage. Coraline sees one of them holding the second eye as a pearl ring and reaches into the wrapper to get it. However, she wakes the actresses, their tangled bodies resembling taffy, and they shriek and grab at her. Coraline shines her flashlight at the dogbats overhead, agitating them and inciting them to fly down at her. She ducks in time for the dogs to collide with the actresses and Coraline gains control of the eye. The auditorium turns to grey stone and Spink and Forcible disintegrate with the dogs.
Next, Coraline goes to Other Bobinsky's apartment where she sees, dangling from a pole on the balcony, the empty clothes of Other Wybie. She shouts to the Beldam that she's not scared before entering the apartment. Bobinsky emerges from the shadows, reduced to only his ringmaster coat and hat, asking why Coraline would want to leave a perfect world. She answers that he couldn't understand since he's merely a copy of the real Bobinsky. Using the stone, she finds the third eye inside Other Bobinsky's hat. She removes his hat to retrieve it but his clothes fall away to reveal the circus rats within. The head rat shrieks at her and attempts to flee with the eye in its mouth. The others try to sabotage Coraline and, as a last resort, she throws the triangular seeing stone at the head rat as it exits the doggy door of Bobinsky's apartment. She misses. She chases the rat onto the balcony which begins to fall apart and collapses. Coraline falls to the ground below and begins to cry when she realizes that she's lost the rat, and the game. The eclipse of the moon completes, revealing the shadow to be that of a button.
The cat then appears with the rat in its mouth and relinquishes the last eye. Coraline thanks him and then, together, they go back inside to find her real parents, the paint on the walls thinning and peeling off. She meets the Beldam in the drawing room, darker and filled with webbing. The Beldam herself has been reduced to her true form; a large, spidery figure with spindly fingers and cracked, white skin. She sneers at the cat and holds up the triangular stone before throwing it into the fire. Without her tool, Coraline is forced to use her wit to guess the location of her parents. She announces that her parents are behind the small door in the wall. The Beldam coughs up the key and as she goes to open the door, Coraline sees her parents miniaturized and trapped within a snowglobe on the mantle. With the door open, the Beldam turns to Coraline, chuckling and saying that she's now trapped in Other World forever. "No I'm not!" Coraline shouts, throwing the cat at the Beldam, grabbing the snowglobe and stuffing it in her pocket. The cat scratches out the Beldam's button eyes and the room falls apart, leaving nothing but a low net of webbing. The cat howls and runs through the small door as Coraline struggles to avoid falling into the center of the net. As she climbs, the vibrations are felt by the sightless Beldam who climbs after her. Coraline manages to get through the small door just in time as the Beldam shrieks and wails that she will die without her. Coraline slams the small door shut in the real world and locks it.
Coraline's parents 'come home' and she runs over to embrace them, though they scold her for breaking the snowglobe and cutting her knee. Despite the snow melting off their shoulders, they have no recollection of what happened and announce that they're going out to eat that night in celebration of the published catalog. After discussing invitations for a garden party, Coraline's parents put her to bed. Her mother leaves a box on her bed; it contains the pair of colorful gloves she'd wanted. Coraline goes to sleep, happy to be home at last.
She wakes in the middle of the night to see the cat outside her window. Though he is visibly upset with her, she apologizes for throwing him at the Beldam and he snuggles up beside her in bed as she places the three ghost children's eyes under her pillow. She dreams that they are finally free spirits and they thank her but warn her that the Beldam lives and will never stop looking for her. Coraline awakes to find that the eyes are broken beneath her pillow but realizes that the skeleton key is what the Beldam is after and she must hide it. She dresses and leaves, resolving to dump the key inside the well at the top of the hill. However, the Beldam's spindly hand, having escaped through the door, follows her. When it discovers her intent, it attacks her and attempts to take the key back. Coraline struggles with it until Wybie appears to help, riding his bike and blowing his air horn. He grabs at the key but the hand trips him up and he falls into the well, dangling as he holds onto some roots. Before the hand can stab at him, Coraline wraps it in her shawl which it quickly rips through. Before it can pounce again, Wybie, having gotten himself out of the well, drops a large rock on it, breaking it. He and Coraline wrap the hand and rock together in the shawl and tie it with the key string before dropping it into the well.
Wybie apologizes for not believing Coraline and shows her a picture of his grandmother as a child...with her twin sister holding an identical doll. He then hears his grandmother calling for him again and Coraline tells him to bring her to the garden party the next day where they will tell her everything together. At the party, everyone gathers to help plant flowers in the garden and Coraline distributes cold drinks. Wybie escorts his grandmother to the party and Coraline offers her a drink, saying that she has so much to tell her.
Just beyond the house, the cat sits on the sign post in front of the Pink Palace. He stretches and walks along the beam, passing the tip of the post and vanishing from sight.