This article was first published on Damaris's Culturewatch website.
© Tony Watkins, 2009
When eleven-year-old Coraline Jones (Dakota Fanning) and her over-worked parents move into a grim apartment in a spooky old house in rural Oregon, she is extremely downcast. Her surroundings are grey and barren, the neighbours are weird and her parents are preoccupied with work. Even before they unpack the boxes, both her parents are hunched over their computer screens. When she tries to get their attention, her mother (Teri Hatcher) declares, ‘I don’t have time for you right now,’ while her father (John Hodgman) demands, ‘Let me work!’ So Coraline explores. She’s intrigued when she discovers a small, papered-over door, but is disappointed when, after persuading her mother to unlock it, there is nothing but bricks.
That night, however, she sees a mouse in her bedroom. She follows it, and it disappears behind the door. Now, instead of a wall, there is a magical tunnel. Coraline crawls down it into a house exactly like the one she’s just left. But she soon realises that it’s very unlike her own house in that it is bright and cheerful, rather than shabby and dull. In the kitchen she finds someone who is just like her mother, but this person is bubbly and genial, rather than distracted and grumpy. She introduces herself to Coraline as her Other Mother. Her Other Father is also jolly and upbeat. It all appears to be an ideal version of her own world. The one fly in the ointment is that her Other Parents have buttons instead of eyes.
Based on the book by Neil Gaiman, Coraline is a beautifully made, captivating stop-motion animation film. Like The Nightmare Before Christmas, it’s directed by Henry Selick, and it shares the same gothic horror atmosphere and gleeful creepiness. It’s a visual treat, especially when seen in 3D. This is the first stop-motion movie to be filmed stereoscopically. This is a scary story, though; one which older children will revel in, but not one for the sensitive. The supernatural aspects are hinted at early on, when Coraline goes out dowsing for an old well, and it becomes increasingly dark and sinister as it progresses.
The day after her first visit, Coraline wakes in her own bed and concludes that what she had experienced was just a dream. Until her neighbour, Mr Bobinsky (Ian McShane), informs her that his troupe of performing mice have asked him to warn her against going through the little door. The following night, she goes through the door again, and finds the Other World to be even more amazing than before. ‘Everything’s perfect in this world, Kiddo,’ claims her Other Father. But she is puzzled to find a cat there which she has encountered in the real world. It’s the same cat, not a version with button eyes, and in this world it can speak. When Coraline comments on her Other Mother, the cat (Keith David) remarks, ‘She’s not like any mother I’ve ever known.’ He adds, ‘You probably think this world is a dream come true, but it’s not.’
Coraline feels, understandably, that her life is not what it should be. She longs for parents who take an interest in her, for a world full of fascinating and wondrous things. She is naturally drawn to the possibility of a world that offers everything her real life does not. She is tempted by the offer of staying forever – until she learns that the price of staying is to sew buttons over her eyes. Is it a price worth paying to have everything her heart desires, especially the love of her parents? Director Henry Selick comments, ‘When I first read the manuscript, I was struck by the juxtaposition of worlds; the one we all live in, and the one where the grass is always greener. This is something that everyone can relate to.’
‘Soon you’ll see things our way,’ insists Other Mother. This is the problem, though. To embrace this world where ‘everything’s right’ means looking at everything wrongly. It means viewing a deception as truth, and the truth as irrelevant. Below the surface is a much darker heart. What appears to be a dream come true transforms into a nightmare. When Coraline discovers the ghosts of three children who were imprisoned by the Other Mother a long time ago, she finally begins to look beyond herself and her own needs and desires. She realises that she is the only one who can deal with the evil at the heart of the web she has jumped into. Neil Gaiman says, ‘I wanted to write a book about what being brave is; it’s being absolutely scared and doing what you must do, despite fear and obstacles.’
Coraline’s real world and real parents may be far from perfect, but at least they’re authentic. Gaiman reflects that, ‘sometimes the people who love you may not pay you all the attention you need; and, sometimes the people who do pay you attention may not love you in the healthiest way.’ Coraline has been looking at the real world wrongly because she has been viewing it entirely through the grid of her own self-interest. But her terrifying experiences change her perspectives and enable her to view reality rightly. She has come to see that contentment depends in part on her attitude, and in part on what she gives to others rather than demanding from them. She has learnt a vital, biblical lesson that there are no shortcuts to satisfaction. All too often they lead not to freedom and fulfilment, but to enslavement and misery. All temptations are the same, promising happiness, but delivering only bondage because they are, ultimately, the enticements of the devil himself. Jesus warned that the easy option in life, the ‘broad road’ that seems to offer so much is one that ends up in destruction. In contrast, the ‘narrow road’ that seems to be difficult, demanding and generally unattractive is the one that leads to life (Matthew 7:13–14). While his words concern how we respond to and relate to him, there is, as Coraline discovers, a very general principle that the things which seem too good to be true often are.