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the trouble with coraline (or: fear of witches)

June 22, 2009

I have not read Neil Gaiman’s Coraline, which in this case is perhaps both an advantage and a disadvantage. On the one hand, my impressions about the movie are not tainted or shaped by the often unfair expectations of those who have read and loved a book, and who want their totally subjective expectations about the story’s visual world faithfully rendered. I can experience the film as itself, as a self contained thing, complete. On the other hand, I am left with all kinds of questions and judgements about the movie and about the underlying intentions that make it what it is, and here not having read the book is something of a disadvantage. Particularly since I have some strong misgivings about this movie: indeed, I think beneath its charming exterior it conceals a a troubling and problematic message and stance.

Make no mistake, it is a well-done film, and up to a certain point, I enjoyed it. I have had some misgivings about the new crop of 3D movies that are supposed to see the future of cinema. My initial assumption was that it just has to be a useless gimmick, making movies into a spectacle that can lure you from out in front of your flatscreen at the expense of subtlety or content. (Until, that is, they come out with the 3D flatscreens.) In this case, I must say I was entranced. Henry Selick’s movie Coraline is beautifully crafted, artfully made film, and the 3D is very delicately done, augmenting and complementing the film’s look and feel. It’s done in that fey gothic, charmingly creepy style Hollywood is sometimes so good at, a style I always associate with good old Edward Gorey, but which is also evident in movies like Edward Scissorhands, the Corpse Bride and such. The animation is beautifully inventive and the movie’s visual world is delightfully whimsical, graceful and playfully dark; all of it done with great assurance, delicacy and polish.

Perhaps too much polish. Something is missing. In the end I found myself wondering, OK, so what’s the point ? And this thought came to me not as I was wandering out of the cinema, or sipping coffee the next morning, which is usually about when my brain starts digesting the latest bolus of images and narrative material. No, it came in the thick of things, right at the climax in fact, when the dreamworld of the parallel universe suddenly deconstructs into a spiderweb, and the creepy Other Mother character turns, as befits any Devouring Mother archetype, into a full-on spider, scary as Shelob, insatiable and predatory. Perfect nightmare logic, I thought; in fact almost too perfect. Suddenly I felt myself disengaging. A terrible greyness suddenly came across me, and awful pall. Suddenly the sparkling polish of the movie, and the sudden intrusion into its surface of this baleful, rapacious presence, was instantly dispiriting, offputting. What was going on here? Whose images were these, where do they come from, and why were we watching them?

It’s a question worth asking, I think. For one thing, Coraline seems to be a re-telling of a very specific fairy tale: one that has been told in different forms fairly recently. Key examples that come to my mind are Miyazaki’s Spirited Away and Pan’s Labyrinth by Guillermo del Toro. In all three these movies, a young girl on the eve of puberty is moving with her parents into a new house, leaving one set of friends behind, entering a new, unfamiliar, and slightly daunting new world (an unnamed city in Spirited Away, a countryside mansion in Pan’s Labyrinth).

In all three stories, she blunders through a hidden portal into a surrealistic dream world populated by strange and mythic beasts. In all three films, she has to liberate her parents (or parent) from some spell or thrall, and has to discover some reserves of courage of her own. In all three films, what seems delightful at first may turn out to be dangerous; and what is scary and repellent may turn out to be a valuable resource. In all three films, it is her encounter with particular masculine figures that is particularly crucial; and in all three films (and this is crucial) femininity is depicted as ambiguous: nourishing and frightening, compelling and treacherous (Other Mother in Coraline, Yubaba in Spirited Away are obvious examples; all the various thwarted female figures in Pan’s Labyrinth are less obvious but even more troubling). Interestingly – and this cannot be entirely a coincidence – all three these films have attained some cult status precisely for their visual inventiveness in conveying the surreal otherworld: Miyazaki’s beautiful ghosts and monsters; Del Toro’s visceral surrealism, Sellick’s ornate mise en scene.

What troubles me about Coraline is in part how prettily, how artfully, how comparatively vapidly it inhabits this very specific and by now rather well trodden mythopoeic terrain. Watching it, I was constantly conscious of a level of knowing calculation, of cuteness. Compared to its sister movies, it lacks real heart or passion. And this is not an unrealistic thing to want of a movie about Little Girls Growing Up. Spirited Away, after all, had real soul at its core: not only in its great visual beauty, but also in the central character Chihiro’s fierce and indomitable integrity. Pan’s Labyrinth was a great deal less likeable in its barely disguised misogyny and its pessimism about what female adulthood entails, but at least it too had a heart, even though it was a nasty one. Coraline, in comparison, is pale, even a little cloying. It’s like unwrapping a beautifully wrapped present; all gauzy papers and beautiful ribbons, everything wonderfully and artfully folded around… nothing.

Some of this is clearly due to this being a big-production, high-concept, lavishly budgeted animated feature. I have no doubt that bevies of focus groups considered every aspect of the story and how it would be pitched. Certainly teams of creative, intelligent and talented people worked with great industry and inventiveness on every aspect of it, from the beautiful music to every cleverly realized flower in that surreal garden. Polished it, I think until they polished out the soul, left us with nothing but surface.

But it is deeper than that. It relates to the story. For what, in the end, is the gain Coraline makes, the lessons she learns, the transformation she has to go through? How is she enriched by her journey? In Spirited Away, Chihiro’s parents’ gluttony and unconsciousness is redeemed by their daughter’s courage, integrity and compassion. While they cannot be grown-ups, she has to be one; and her spirit friends give her the courage to do the job. In Pan’s Labyrinth, the deal is altogether darker: Ofelia makes precisely the opposite choice from those in the other two films, turning away from the grown-up real world, dying in real life to live forever as a princess in fantasyland. But in this movie, Coraline gains… what, exactly? The evil spider woman, the rapacious and devouring mother, is shut away behind the trapdoor, there to rage fruitlessly for eternity. Bossy Mom and Gutless Dad, distant and abandoning, lost like eternal teenagers in their own narcissistic careers, are little changed.
But there is more wrong than that: the problem lies at the movie’s heart, with its vision, and with what it says.  For what does it say about Coraline’s problem, and about her journey?    What does she gain, and what does she lose?   The answer is disquieting. Young Coraline’s yearnings – her desire for something more than this grey world, her wish for something more than her absent parents – these are not sublimated, rendered into dream and memory, as was the case with Chihiro, who can now live with her piggish parents, having made her own living connection with the subliminal and luminous world. Neither do they lead her to be lost forever in fairyland, as Pan’s Labyrinth’s rather disturbing ending has it. Rather, they are revealed as a dead end; not a real promise at all, but merely the blandishments of the witch in the well, to be rejected and abandoned. Be careful what you wish for, says the movie’s tagline.   Indeed: be careful about wishing for anthing at all. Particularly not a nourishing mother, an interesting dad, a connection with dream and desire. Crucially, Coraline throws into the well not only the witch’s animated mechanical hand, but also the key to the other world itself. All that magic was a sham. Best get an iPod.

I think it is no coincidence that my doubts about this movie crystallized so clearly at the moment that it did. For at the heart of all three these movies is the underground feminine power, the imaginary nourishing mother, so ambivalent, so scary, so dangerous. We know her, of course. Her name is Kali, bringer of life and destruction. In Spirited Away we see her in her full ambivalence, beautifully and kindly rendered in the gorgeous, alarming, magnetic and playful characters of Yubaba and her twin sister Zeniba. In Pan’s Labyrinth she is present through a visceral horror of the body and of generativity (the slimy frog at the base of the tree, the mandrake root), and paradoxically through the absence of positively adult female figures (the weak mother, the barren, masculine Mercedes). In Coraline, she is revealed to be nothing but a hungry ghost, a ravenous witch, to be shut away, to be banished underground. The official plot synopsis on Wikipedia puts it with admirable and unknowing clarity: ‘ Coraline lures [the witch’s hand] to a well and tricks it into falling in with the key, ridding the world of the danger of the Other Mother forever”.

The italics are mine. The message is clear: let us have nothing to do with the inspiriting feminine. Let’s close the door to the Dreamworld. Let us be happy with real mom, cold and distant as she is, and her feeble gift of orange mittens. With the Witch, we want no traffic. No wonder the movie feels bland.

22 Comments leave one →
  1. Kevin permalink
    June 22, 2009 6:54 pm

    Well done for starting a blog, and a thoroughly interesting starting piece. Of the 3 you mention I've only seen Pan's Labyrinth, so have little to comment on your connections between them. From what I understand of the story of Coraline though, you make some interesting points. I wasn't that inspired to see it in the first place though. Is the name of your blog a reference to the Pullman novel? Or perhaps there's a deeper story which I will have the pleasure of reading at some later stage. btw – you have a typo in the last paragraph [the withch’s hand]

  2. StormCrow permalink
    June 22, 2009 7:54 pm

    Oh, yes, and about the title. Yes, it is a (presumptious) reference to Pullman's wonderful book.

  3. cathwrynn permalink
    June 23, 2009 9:36 am

    interesting that you also had a strange reaction to the movie.i watched it and found it visually perfect; not my favourite mood/genre/style… it is meant to be and is disturbing.

    but artistically one cannot fault them.

    what i found disturbing was the message of the movie.

    when i went into the movie i was in an awesome space. I suddenly, deep in my gut, come to realise that one CAN have the best of both worlds. I felt that the possibilities were endless: we could follow our desires into an integrated, beautiful space called our future lives. We could be functional and responsible and yet feel and follow our creative and deeper needs into a form of maya based nirvana. into a resting place of yin and yang.

    Needless to say half way through the movie I began to doubt myself. Ah, the message says do NOT trust your desires, your needs, your wants becasue they are a sinister trap in which selfishness and desire live to ensnare you and suck you dry. where you will ultimately lose everything you; even the little you have now.

    Settle for the mundane world as incomplete and unfulfilling as it is. Through acceptance of what is you find peace.

    Horrible, horrible movie. If there is something sinister in it it is the artificially simplistic world they created, and conversely THEY are not to be trusted at all. The message and world of the movie is in fact the lie they seek to place on the witch.

    I refuse to accept that there is no magick.

  4. cathwrynn permalink
    June 23, 2009 9:38 am

    as always stormcrow…

    you name what has no words yet, and caw them into the wind for us to hear.


  5. StormCrow permalink
    June 23, 2009 10:21 am

    Spot on cathwrynn – you go to the heart of the matter. A dead, nasty, conservative message to the movie under all that glitter. I concur.

  6. mashadutoit permalink
    June 23, 2009 9:39 pm

    I also felt that a certain numbness at the centre – and I really wanted to like this movie…

    The clearest message I could find was a sort of nihilist, self hating one. Its a very specific Neil Gaiman attitude – very emo. Speaking with an adult voice and an adolescent voice at the same time.

    Afterwords I thought that this might be on the familiar theme of many ghost stories – main character's strong emotions enhanced and warped by the haunting of the past, resonating and calling up past events.

    I thought the story was told by Coraline, trying to convince herself that what she wanted at first was self centred, because facing the truth of what she can never have is too painful. By denying the validity of her own needs, she sucks the life out of her own story.

    Its painful for the viewer because we also see through Coraline's lens – so at first we sympathise. Then as the movie continues, we become aware of this lens's possible distortion – is she just being self centred? Shouldnt we sympathise? And then become aware that the distortion itself could be a lie.

    I found the "other mother" far more scary when she looked more normal.

  7. StormCrow permalink
    June 24, 2009 4:59 am

    the really scary mom for me, of course, was Real Mom. And Coraline herself at the end, a kind of mini-mom, nicely set on the path to bourgeouis adulthood.

  8. August 29, 2009 2:58 am

    I never thought to compare Coraline to Pan’s Labyrinth, but it did remind me of Spirited Away… and “Alice in Wonderland”, “Hansel and Gretel”, “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe”, and the list goes on. Coraline and Spirited Away are definitely up there in my favorite films (Coraline, Spirited Away, then Ponyo).

    • andries du toit permalink*
      August 29, 2009 1:18 pm

      Thanks Camille. I never heard about Ponyo. I will check it out.

  9. bismi m0et permalink
    September 5, 2009 11:34 am

    coraline movie is very very funny and lurid . . . i like coraline movie

  10. Matthew Littlewood permalink
    September 13, 2009 2:11 pm

    Interesting review.

    What struck me about the film is that even before she takes a gander behind the portal, the world she lives in is pretty strange- after all, you have an aging, eccentric acrobat, two retired burlesque queens and a well-meaning but rather eccentric young boy as Coraline’s neighbours. Is that enough? The parents, too, were overworked and somewhat inattentive, sure, but they certainly weren’t hateful or malignant. They definitely meant well.

    So the two worlds it set up weren’t exactly in opposition with oneanother, which made it a rather curious viewing experience- slightly detached at times, albeit consistently alluring and haunting. I enjoyed it a lot more than you, though I could see where you’re coming from- though in my mind, the distinctions aren’t so clear-cut, and if anything it seemed to be having a go at Coraline’s desire for instant gratification. Indeed, I felt there could’ve been an interesting little film made out of her “real world”.

    The two films you compared it are apt choices- speaking of “Pan’s Labyrinth”, have you seen “The Spirit of the Beehive”? PL was clearly influenced by that film, not least in the use of a young girl escaping into a dreamworld as a metaphor for the Spanish Civil War.

    • andries du toit permalink*
      September 13, 2009 3:41 pm

      Thanks Matthew… I agree that Coraline’s desires may seem childish, but only if you ignore what is at stake in a mythpoeic reading of the movie. If they were all sensible adults, Orpheus would not go into the underworld, Demeter would let go of Persephone, Penelope would marry one of the suitors, and Arthur would never pull the sword out of the stone. But if you read all these stories as metaphors of the soul’s path, then the journey to the underworld, the search for the numinous is essential. What is alarming and constricting about the film is how it both invokes and closes off this search. Well, that’s my take, anyway.

      Spirit of the Beehive. Yes, a beautiful film, and clearly very present in Pan’s Labyrinth. I saw it many years ago. All I remember of it is the final frame in which, I think, the young girl leaps through the fire, metaphorically into adulthood. A choice neither Pan’s Labyrinth nor Coraline allow their heroines.

      • Matthew Littlewood permalink
        September 14, 2009 12:07 pm

        I think there’s a lot of truth in what you say insofar as whichever way you look at the film, it’s pretty nihilistic. It’s not exactly one that presents an either/or situation, she’s going to get corrupted or lose something regardless. It could be pretty constructive comparing it to Pixar’s latest “Up”, which offers a more generous and probably truer outlook insofar that it lets its protagonist follow their dreams, but acknowledge that those dreams can change along the way (“life is what happens when you’re making other plans,” as Lennon once said).

  11. December 28, 2009 4:37 pm

    Well done. I loved the 3-films parallel. After reading this, I need to watch the movie again. To me, Coraline doesn’t have what it takes to rival with Tim Burton’s Nightmare Before Christmas or Corpse Bride. I agree with you, there is something missing to put the spark into this animated feature film.

  12. sage permalink
    February 4, 2010 10:42 am

    Why does there have to be a message In the movie? When I watch a movie or a read a book I dont sit there and demand it has a message why should things we enjoy have a message, coraline was a and I loved It, Im only saddened a bunch of stuck up people have to ponder weather a kids movie have a message.

    • andries du toit permalink*
      February 4, 2010 10:56 am

      Hmmm… well, what I think is that, whether you like it or not, stories DO carry meanings above all and beyond their actual plots and characters. You can choose to ignore it, or you can attend to it. In my view, being aware of the other layers of meaning increases, not reduces, delight. If you don’t agree, then of course you don’t have to read reviews. Just go see the movie.

      • Deborah permalink
        May 13, 2010 11:52 pm

        I, too, used to wonder how reviewers could endlessly pick over movies finding – or sometimes I felt ‘inventing’– so many layers of symbolic meaning. Thinking it would lessen my immersive experience, and disturb the ‘magic’ of a film, I was unwilling to interpret them to any deeper level. However, I am now a ‘mature’ student of literature, media, and hopefully soon film, and find that everything I am learning is informing my film (and novel) reading. I can no longer deny the intended, and unintended, meaning to be found in so many films. Rather than spoiling my enjoyment of the movie viewing experience, I feel the films speak to me on so many more levels, and my enjoyment and understanding of them has been enriched. The magic survives and is enhanced.
        Thank you for your review of Coraline – it put words to some of the disquiet I felt about choices offered, what was lost and what was gained – and why. Interestingly it joined Spirited Away as one of my 12-year-old daughter’s all-time favourite movies.
        Please don’t go with the “spoiler alert” warnings. Such alerts would be discordant within the context of these beautifully written critiques.

  13. Jeff M permalink
    March 28, 2010 6:16 am

    Coraline is NOT a story about a young girl’s coming of age. It’s about, in psychological terms, “the good mother-bad mother,” the good ‘nipple’ – bad ‘nipple.’ It’s far more complex than a simple ‘coming of age’ story or theme. It’s Melanie Klein with a twist.

  14. Courtnay permalink
    July 15, 2013 11:26 pm

    I loved your essay and analysis. BUT what I found interesting are the opening and closing images in the film. First, she Coraline is doing something ‘witchy’ and succeeds (by accident, we think) …she divines the location of water. The boy calls her a water witch. I believe Coraline grows into being her own witch,her own self. We are told this subtly at the end of the movie when the cat disappears. The cat became her familiar throughout the movie. I feel like that is the main message of the film- Coraline threw the other mother away (her childish dreams of magic) and created her own magic within the confines of the real world. She is in control in this movie. Everyone else around her is confused, indifferent or warped somehow. She and the cat are the only ones privy to both worlds and able to traverse between them unscathed. I feel like the boy’s “rescues” of her are purposely mocked…he looks silly. It’s significant. I LOVE the message of this move, and feel the motif is given a far subtler treatment here than either Pan’s Labyrinth or Spirited Away, both of which I also love. I think it’s so subtle, that it might be missed if you don’t watch that very last frame reminding you of the cat.

  15. March 19, 2014 7:00 am

    When I originally left a comment I appear to have clicked on the -Notify me when new comments are added- checkbox and now whenever a comment is added I get 4 emails with the same comment. There has to be a way you can remove me from that service? Thank you!

  16. sevenblues permalink
    September 20, 2014 12:30 am

    I don’t think you realized that the misogyny shown by the male character in Pan’s Labyrinth is the author, Guillermo’s way of showing how the relationship between men and women are horrible. He intended to do that. The character is a small part in the grand picture– the actions of a character does not represent the views of the author. And when I look at Coraline, it’s a lot more misogynistic– the mother is seen as the enemy.. so really, Coraline is pretty disturbing. Especially since by the end of the film, Coraline’s loneliness is so easily swept aside just because her mother bought her the pair of gloves.. that really doesn’t justify all the loneliness and hurt she felt in the beginning of the movie. And the fact that in Pan’s Labyrinth, men are seen doing atrocious things, means the author acknowledges the fact that they’re misogynistic for valuing men over women. So what you’re really disgusted by, is the reality that they’re portraying. And likewise, the author hates it too, which is why he is exposing it..

    Also, back to Coraline, it doesn’t make much sense by the end. It’s almost as if to say that all the loneliness and hurt she felt were made up in her mind. This movie doesn’t make any sense.. the logic doesn’t add up. If a films internal logic clashes, suspension of disbelief fails.. that’s a bad movie for me.

    • andries du toit permalink*
      September 22, 2014 9:30 am

      Those are interesting thoughts. Pan’s Labyrinth is certainly a complex movie. I still did not like it much. But if I see it again I will look more carefully.

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