Revisiting “Coraline” and Some of Its Subtleties

It has been eleven years, yet the public’s interest in the film “Coraline” does not seem to be flagging. A recent CinemaCins video may attest to the continued interest, and to the work’s masterliness, as even a channel dedicated to nitpicking films offers hardly any criticisms of this one, and still fewer valid ones. Accordingly, this post endeavours to present fresh insights into, and perspectives on, this singular property. Unless otherwise specified, I refer here to the film, not the novella.

After some engagement with the material, I was intrigued by a hinted connection of of Coraline to the magical realm. Witness the song made up by her father, in which he calls her his “twitchy-witchy girl”. In the film, this is supplemented by Wyborn’s terming her a “Michigan water witch”. The obvious irony here is that the plot has her face off against a distinctly witch-like antagonist. “Beldam” can mean “witch”, and the villain both feeds Coraline repeatedly and, may plan to eat her, whether literally or not — at least, this is suggested by the cat’s remark. The parallel to “Hänsel and Gretel” is apparent.

Yet I think there is more than irony at play. Coraline does use magic when she looks through the hole in the stone which Miss Spink and Miss Forcible have given her. Her alliance with a black cat, an archetypal witch’s familiar, fortifies the image of Coraline as a witch. Her penchant for dowsing, which earns her Wyborn’s remark, shows her predisposition for the mystical. Consider, too, that she somehow knows how to set the ghost children’s souls free, namely by sleeping with their spherical containers under her pillow. Then there is the moment when, to pull the door to the Other World shut, she seems to summon spirits. That is, the ghost children and, in the book, her parents help her. It is unclear whether her impulsive cry of “please shut” had anything to do with it, in the manner of a magic spell. In the film, admittedly, the ghosts’ hands emerge before those words are uttered.

A minor change from the novella to the screenplay which I found artful occurs when Coraline asks her father where the gardening tools are. “What’d the boss say?” he asks in the film, referring to his wife. In the book, he simply asks what her mother said. Not only is the sentence’s altered version funnier, it also foreshadows the “Other Mother”’s dominion over the “Other Father” or, if one prefers, reinforces a parallel between Coraline’s mother’s dominant character and the Beldam’s manipulative abuse. If one views the story as an exploration of Coraline’s psyche, her confrontation with an overbearing monster which seeks to control and exploit her may reflect her need to cope with her anger at her mother, whom she considers too strict.

Most stories featuring the replacement of a parent — usually the mother — probably address insecurities of this sort. Bruno Bettelheim, in “The Uses of Enchantment”, argues this regarding stepmothers in fairy tales. A child’s resentment towards its mother is represented by a malicious mother-figure in a story, but to avoid making the child acknowledge that it is angry at its own mother, a stepmother is inserted in the real one’s place.

Whether intentional or not, the film exhibits a theme of nature versus artificiality. Coraline’s parents are gardeners, and at the end of the adventure, the house’s surroundings are resplendent in rich hues of green and red from tulips, indicating a turn for the better. Contrariwise, the Other World is accessed from indoors, and the Beldam in what is presumably her true form looks constructed, her hands made of needles and her face, it seems, of shards of crockery. For sure, her garden is a major attraction for Coraline, and she has huge insects standing around to serve as furniture. Yet these are abominations of nature, not truly natural creatures. Having come to distrust her “Other Mother”, Coraline scornfully calls the talking toys in her room in the Other World “robots”. Moreover, perversions of nature are a Shakespearean staple, and the Immortal Bard is referenced repeatedly throughout the film.

What is the point of this motif, if it is purposeful? Maybe it suggests that the natural may not be all one wants it to be, but neither is the inauthentic: it only pretends to live up to that standard. This would be in line with the film’s major theme of accepting one’s circumstances instead of indulging in escapist fantasies and self-pity over the world’s imperfections. The garden in the real world may not be as splendid as the one tended by Coraline’s “Other Father”, but by the film’s end, her true parents and Mr. Bobinsky are working on improving it as she assists them, and this version is real.

The measure of Coraline’s virtue warrants attention, partly as it relates to larger issues regarding what makes a good character. Much has been made, and particularly, it seems, in recent popular discussions, of the need for writers to make their characters relatable, and therefore flawed. Dissenters surely include admirers of Ayn Rand, who so often constitute a social time capsule from the past. Rand was wont to model her protagonists after mythological heroes, proud characters on grand missions, and “The Fountainhead” was an attempt to represent the “ideal man”. Another voice against the bromide that relatability is key is Aaron Ehasz, former head writer for “Avatar: The Last Airbender”. He advises writers to strive to make characters “fascinating”, rather than “relatable”.

“Coraline” takes a different path. Its titular character is both relatable and flawed, but only to a point. When it comes time to return to the hell beyond the small door to rescue her parents, she is courageous almost beyond belief. Other children’s stories have protagonists willingly confront things which frighten them, but rarely things which terrify the audience to the degree which this film’s villain achieves. The main character’s courage is vastly more impactful for the viewer’s fear, and enough so, maybe, to inspire Ehaszian fascination or Randian idealisation. Can “Coraline” help its audience to act courageously? There is likely no easy way to prove that, but for me, introspection suggests it. The film gets the best of both worlds, no pun intended: Coraline is flawed in certain ways, allowing for character development, yet unrealistically brave, allowing her to be inspiring in way seldom seen in current fiction.

This post has aimed to spotlight a few possible interpretations of elements in “Coraline” which I have not seen spelled out before. Upon its completion, I am reminded of how many subtleties and intricacies are found in the best art. This film’s complexity is one of the main things which stand out about it to me, and ensures that it will be worth not only rewatching, but also discussing, for years to come.

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