Oscar® Nominee for Best Animated Feature Film
Reviewed by: Michael Karounos
Teens, Adults, Not kids
Animation Fantasy Horror
1 hr. 40 min.
Year of Release:
February 6, 2009 (wide—2,100 theaters)
DVD: July 21, 2009
“Be careful what you wish for.”
“Coraline” is a film by Henry Selick (“The Nightmare Before Christmas”) based on the award-winning children’s book by Neil Gaiman. The story concerns an 11 year old girl whose mother and father move into a secluded house in the country. In the attic of the house lives an eccentric man who trains mice and in the basement live two eccentric and aged former actresses who have dogs. Coraline is bored, her parents have time only to type on their computers, and so Coraline discovers her own adventure.
The film is not only shot in stop-motion animation, like “James and the Giant Peach” and “The Nightmare Before Christmas,” but it is also filmed in 3D, though the use of the technology is not as striking as in the movie “Beowulf” (2007). The texture of the film is interesting, but there are no innovative concepts. The idea of an alternate world behind a door or mirror, we have seen before in Alice in Wonderland and in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. In an interview, Henry Selick acknowledges as much, saying:
What is unusual about this story, both book and film, is the moral darkness of the universe which Coraline inhabits. The moral of the film can best be summarized as “Be careful of what you wish for” or, as Coraline in the book says, “What kind of fun would it be if I just got whatever I wanted?” (133). Coraline’s boredom leads her into a dangerous parallel world in which there is an Other Mother and an Other Father who are attentive to her, cook great meals, and have a home full of fantastic toys and moving furniture. They also have buttons for eyes.
Neither the plot nor the setting are the most important parts of the movie, as concerns Christian parents. Rather, of concern is Neil Gaiman’s conception of an alternate world in which the functioning domesticity of a mother who cooks and a father who works is a kind of hell. In the book, the Other Mother punishes Coraline:
The speech is clearly a slam at the kind of home where mothers cook and fathers work and parents speak of “sin” and “sinner” and “mercy” and “justice.” It is the kind of home that atheists imagine Christians live in: a Stepford Family reality of puppet people with no creativity or individuality.
The most disturbing thing about the movie is the tone of the relationships. Henry Selick adds a boy character named Wybie, short for Wybourne, whose name Coraline mockingly transforms into “Why-were-you-born?” In every relationship in the movie, the female character abuses the male. The real mother dominates the real father, the Other Mother ultimately destroys the Other Father, the grandmother controls Wybie, and, worst of all, Coraline strikes and abuses Wybie in both the real and the Other World. Wybie is a trodden-down character in both worlds, who slouches, is slavishly deferential to Coraline, and is clearly less of a person than she is. What this accumulation of images constructs is a moral universe in which the family or community are subservient to the demands of a tyrannical individual.
The fact that Ramona is one of the characters Coraline reads is not surprising, in the sense that Coraline comes across as a spoiled child to a Christian audience. To a non-Christian audience she is supposed to seem confident, charmingly rebellious, and, above all, equal to the adults. It is an atheistic view of family in which moral authority begins with the child, flows through the mother, and ends at the father: a conscious inversion of a Christian family model.
Coraline’s aggression is supposed to be indicative of her assertiveness, but in a social universe where every woman is cruel or cold, Coraline comes across as an extension of the good and bad mothers. What the female characters have in common are an abusive streak that is either slight or extensive, but which is present in all three. Gaiman’s perverse view of relationships may have to do with the fact that he is reacting against the Disney model:
Any artist who sees happy relationships “like pornography” will certainly see actual pornography in a different light. Gaiman’s book sexualizes the relationship between Miss Pink and Miss Forcible and shows them in relatively modest circus outfits. However, Henry Selick extends that content and portrays a naked Miss Forcible as a strip dancer wearing a sequined thong and stripper’s pasties on impossibly huge breasts. The children in the audience cried out their disgust in tones of amusement and surprise, as if to say, “So that’s what they look like without any clothes!” It is a deeply misogynistic image which will elicit disgust in any Christian viewer, regardless of age.
Gaiman’s book is not as dark as Selick’s vision, and the illustrations by P. Craig Russell on page eight show images of the movies “Totoro” (1988) and “Babe” (1995), as well as partial covers of Lily’s Ghosts (2005) by Laura Ruby, The Wall and the Wing (2007) by Laura Ruby, Ramona and her Mother (1990) by Beverly Cleary, and Warriors: Into the Wild (2003) by Erin Hunter. These references are left out of the movie, which oddly converts Coraline into a hollow mental and spiritual shell who desires only physical experience.
From a story standpoint, the book is a hodge-podge of incidents and images. Gaiman is famous and has the ability to trade on the brand of his name. He can put almost anything on the market, and it will sell. For example, this quotation of how the book came to be published is revealing:
“And I had a small, Wednesday Addams sort of daughter who liked stories with strange mothers and cellars and dank places and creepy stuff, and so I started to write her one. And then I realized I hadn’t written anything for 5 years, and I’d better get a contract, otherwise it would never be finished. So I sent it to a publisher, and my editor called me up and said, ‘So what happens next?’ and I said, ‘If you send me a contract, we will both find out.’”
In other words, he didn’t have a story outline. Incidents just morphed into a kind of tale over a period of five years without any underlying moral or an awareness of absolute good or evil. In a real myth, such as those written by C.S. Lewis or J.R.R. Tolkien or George MacDonald, there is absolute good and evil, and they are represented not only by things and characters, but by living ideas which must be confronted by the mind and heart, as much as by the body. In “Coraline,” the evil is a mother who cooks and cleans and the good is a rejection of that mother. There is no good idea, just a mode of rebellious behavior that arises out of boredom. Such boredom stems from children having a sense of entitlement to be entertained and a self-esteem which is always fed flattery and praise. This comes from having too many things and not too few things to do.
In “Coraline” there is no good; there is only evil. Coraline’s malicious behavior toward Wybie is portrayed as independence. In the end of the book and movie, Mr. Bobo says “The mice tell me you are our savior.” But how has Coraline saved anyone? The parents now dig in the garden instead of type on their computers, but Coraline has not undergone any change. It is her parents who must change in order to accommodate her. She has not become a better person toward Wybie, less selfish in her demands, or less self-centered in the way she views the world around her. It is, literally, a world without God, in which the self is its own god and which must be fed experience in order to be fully alive.
“Coraline” is a bad movie for children and a disturbing movie for adults. The horror of it comes not from the plot, which is common, but from its nihilistic attitude. This view sees human relations as power struggles which can only be resolved by an exercise of will, and it sees life as an existential wasteland that has no intrinsic meaning, but what we can give to it ourselves. As art, it is a diminished thing without light, while its truest love is of the darkness in all things. Some people may be misled by the bright tone of the voices in its real world to think it is an “uplifting” movie, but underlying that tone is a spiritual emptiness which inhabits the characters, the setting, and, it seems, the movie’s creators.
Violence: Moderate / Profanity: None / Sex/Nudity: Heavy
See list of Relevant Issues—questions-and-answers.