You might be surprised to see Laika’s 2009 stop-motion animated film “Coraline” under my Autopsy category. As the heading of my blog states, a film autopsy involves cutting into a movie to see how it died. “But Coraline,” you say impetuously, “Is a critically acclaimed movie based on a Neil Gaiman book! It seems just like your kind of thing!” And it certainly does.
Coraline is a beautiful and imaginative piece of cinematic artistry. The film excels at creating a mood through visual storytelling and maintaining a consistent tone. The famous screen-writing adage of “show, don’t tell” is perfectly used here. The dramatic stakes are relatable, and hint at a number of interesting themes. The voice acting is all top notch and the animation is often brilliant to behold. So why don’t I like Coraline?
The central problem of the film comes from the characters and the way they interact with the situations. Specifically, Coraline’s parents. Coraline herself seems like a fine protagonist in general. She’s plucky, somewhat smart but not too smart and we understand the reasoning behind her actions. Early in the film we see her trying to get the attention of her parents. When she is ignored, she acts out. This part of the movie works on its own, but not when taken with the rest of the film. In these early scenes, Coraline’s parents are presented as downright neglectful, only interested in work and completely ignoring their daughter. This creates a clear line of reasoning that leads Coraline into the clutches of The Other Mother. A world where her parents spend all of their time doting on her naturally appeals to the seemingly unwanted Coraline. Her parents are shown as self-absorbed yuppies with no interest in their daughter to whom they bestowed a needlessly odd name. Her father is shown to take the domestic role of cooking, despite making apparently disgusting concoctions, while her mother appears to be the more professional and business oriented parent. The parents on the other side appear to be more traditional, with Coraline’s mother taking the domestic role and her father being a successful entrepreneur and inventor. His computer keyboard is replaced with the keys of a piano. Where Coraline’s real mother is somewhat strict and professional, the other mother is relaxed and has a sing-song way of speech.
I’ve found two metaphorical interpretations for the world on the other side through my viewing experience. Neither interpretation conflicts with the other, which leads me to believe both are intended. The first and perhaps most obvious is a representation of home-life prior to the civil rights movements of the 60’s and 70’s. The constant forced happiness and traditional gender roles shown in the other world gradually reveal themselves to be a facade. The image that most strongly drives this comparison home is when Wybie is shown with his mouth sown shut. Having the only major African-American character in the film silenced in the other world reminds us of the darker side of pre-1960’s America. One of the most disturbing images in the film comes when other Wybie’s mouth is sown in the shape of a smile, as he clearly shows distress. While it may have seemed like the 1950’s standard of working father, loving mother and clean-cut children was idyllic, the truth is it was all a fiction constructed to create a uniform society, not a happy or equal one. This all becomes clear when Coraline is asked to allow her eyes to be pulled out and replaced with buttons.
The other (less political) reading of the film is about animated film-making itself. When Coraline walks with the cat past the end of the world, we see it fade out in a way that evokes a digital image. The white emptiness they find themselves in evokes the empty sterility of computers. From this, I began to take the other world as a metaphor for computer animation. The cat’s line that “[the other mother] only made what she knew would impress you” seems to have a double meaning as a slight towards computer animators. Computer animation may seem exciting and magical, but at the end of the day none of it is real. Compare this with stop-motion animation, where every image is created with actual puppets and miniature sets in real life. The point is driven home when we observe the progression of Coraline’s parents throughout the film. At first they are both glued to their screens, but as time goes on (and they are shown to be less of bad parents) they are shown with their computers less and less. This reaches its zenith at the end of the film when the parents are shown planting a garden of roses, illustrating the triumph of the natural world over the technological one.
And this brings me to why the film doesn’t quite work for me. Coraline learns throughout the movie that the perfect idealized world of fantasy is not real and will destroy her. As a result of this, she resolves to be happy with her real parents. The problem is, her real parents aren’t the same parents as they are at the beginning of the film. Before you say anything, yes, I understand this was intentional. The real parents are shown to be less bad as the film goes on as the other parents are shown to be less good. I get that, but for me it undermines the point. Coraline’s parents are truly terrible at the beginning of the movie and become less so as it goes along for no apparent reason. The viewer is left to assume they were never truly terrible, they just had a bad day. It’s easy to see how one bad day could drive an impulsive child like Coraline to believe her parents are bad, but it results in her being less likable. Add to this her rude attitude towards Wybie and bratty behavior to her real parents and it’s hard to root for her.
But Coraline being sort of unlikable is a minor gripe. She is easy to identify with, as long as your capable of remembering what childhood is like. The problem is that Coraline herself has little agency. At its core Coraline is a classic “careful what you wish for” tale, but she never makes a wish. The first choice Coraline is given is whether or not to sow buttons in her eyes. Her decision not to is the obvious choice. She doesn’t wrestle with it at all and it doesn’t require a change of heart for her. She is still a selfish little girl. After this Coraline is tasked with finding the eyes of the ghost children. Again, she makes the decision with no contemplation. Given that it appears to be somewhat selfless, it doesn’t seem in character for her to do so. The Coraline we know seems more likely to simply leave. Coraline never actually grows as a character or learns anything. Neither do her parents. The ending wherein Coraline becomes more content with her normal life has nothing to do with her changing her mind, but more to do with us seeing her parents as full characters. The film works as a story, but fails to connect on an emotional level because the action and characters fail to be genuinely compelling.
Coraline is a major success on the level of animation, mood and perhaps even message. And yet, both times I’ve watched it, I was left feeling cold. The weaknesses of the script are not surmountable by the visual craftsmanship and palpable atmosphere. The sad thing is, Coraline is still better than the majority of kids movies coming out today. I’d absolutely recommend the film to anyone fascinated by stop-motion, and just about anyone with kids between the ages of eight and thirteen. But for me personally, the endeavor ultimately falls flat.