the trouble with coraline (or: fear of witches)
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).
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.
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.