Thoughts On: Coraline - Careful What You Wish For


Coraline - Careful What You Wish For

Thoughts On: Coraline (2009)

A young girl is lead to an Other World with Other parents when she follows a mouse through a door in a wall.

I use this word an awful lot, but I believe that there are a lot out there: masterpiece. Coraline is a masterpiece. Not only is this a truly affecting movie with genuine horror imbued into its 3D stop-motion thanks to brilliant artistry at every level of production, but Coraline has a script that is frighteningly dense. Within only 95 minutes, Henry Selick, through adapting Neil Gaiman's book, works an impossible amount of profundity into this seemingly unfathomable fairy tale - one with many dark undertones and, for some, much unnerving subtext. Whilst we've seen complexity in the subtext of Selik's films with The Nightmare Before Christmas, it seems that Coraline goes far beyond this with an abstract collision of so many ideas - too many. So, before we jump right into things, I'll preface by emphasising that I believe this to be unfathomable film, one that cannot be exhausted. And so, despite my efforts here to render as diligently as I can an analysis of this film, there will still be much more for you to explore yourself. Before we begin, I'll warn that this is a very long and circuitous post, so strap yourselves in and get comfortable. With that said, let us start...

The crux of Coraline is, loosely, a psychoanalytical idea of an Oedipal, or an Electra, complex. However, I don't believe that Selik shows a comprehensive adherence to a Freudian or Jungian interpretation of what is supposed to be a detailing of the conflicts that can arise between a mother and daughter as the daughter develops. This is because Freud and Jung emphasised the idea that both mother and daughter were competing for possession of the father. We see no direct implication of this throughout Coraline; whilst the mother, Mel, is possessive over the father, Charlie, to varying degrees across her different representations in the film, Coraline shows no real need to control her father. So, instead of depicting the Electra complex as a conflict seated primarily within Coraline, Selik appeals most explicitly to the over-protective mother archetype - the Oedipal mother - which is bound to psychoanalytical thinking and, self-evidently, ideas such as the Oedipal and Electra complex. In abandoning Freudian and Jungian definitions, Selik abstracts the child out these complexes and focuses on the parents - and such a decision seems to be a sensible one in the modern age (one that has seen a decline in the popularity of psychoanalysis since the former half of the 20th century). This is because, whilst Freud's ideas of the Electra complex and "penis envy" make sense when you envelop yourself into the psychoanalytical axiom or thought structuring, when you take ideas outside of such a context, they become quite sour. This is why a term such as "penis envy" - which suggests that, when a daughter realises that she does not have a penis with which to dominate her mother sexually (as the id would desire), she grows envious - would seem either morally corrupt or misogynist to most people who aren't familiar with psychoanalytical thinking, or simply do not accept it. In taking this element of "penis envy", in turn, a motivation within Coraline to possess her father as a means of embracing heterosexual femininity, Selik then not only makes this film more palatable and less abstract, but manages to add his own nuances onto the character of Coraline that suite her persona rather than reduce her to a mere psychoanalytical archetype. With that briefly outlined, we can then interpret the opening image of the film:

As we will later find out in the story, this doll is a representative of a child which the Other Mother, or Beldam, will use to spy on the represented figure and eventually ensare. The Other Mother, considering her as this alone, an "other mother", is a character that is then quite simple; she is the Oedipal mother. This means that she is over-protective to a degree that will damage her child; she wants them to perpetually be an infant from which she can suck love out of - which is why it is said that mothers want to eat their children in this narrative. This isn't an implication of malevolence. As is well-known by all parents or even anyone that has come into a contact with a cute baby, there is an urge within you to squeeze or bite young infants. Again, this isn't malevolent; you don't want to hurt your baby, rather, you do not know how to deal with such frailty and cuteness that you just have to smush the thing. This type of emotion or feeling leads to what is called a "dimorphous expression", and this idea defines the phenomena of acting with aggression and care towards cuteness. It is then thought that mothers want to bite or squeeze their babies as a way of regulating their reaction to perceived stimuli; the baby is so weak and so you understand that it can be destroyed all too easily - all you'd have to do is squeeze its soft head and it'd die - but at the same time you have an overwhelming urge to protect the baby because it is so vulnerable.

As the psychoanalysts outlined, caring for your baby too much is almost as bad as squeezing it to death. This is because, if your 5-year-old still acts like a baby due to it being treated like it were only 6-months-old, it will be rejected by its social groups. And psychologists find that, 1) 2-year-olds are the most aggressive type of human being, and, 2) the primary carers for a child, those that control and guide their maturation, by the time they hit around 4 is no longer their parents, but their friends - and this remains as such for the rest of their lives. So, if a 5-year-old still acts like a baby, a terrible 2-year-old, they will be overwhelmingly impulsive; whilst they experience the most genuine and intense joy, they also experience rage of equal measure - a tantrum. If they cannot control this and become more mature they will not be able to make friends and they will be rejected by their peers. If they then hit social walls when they are 5, they will be left behind whilst other children develop - and the longer a child stays infantalised, the further behind they will fall if, worst case scenario, they never develop the ability to socialise and forever remain 2-year-olds (maybe you know one or two adults somewhat like this). This will leave 'Peter Pan' to develop into an 'adult' that, if they aren't already in ruin, will be incredibly impulsive with only one person looking after them: their mother. And the mother will not have matured along with her child; she has forever remained the protective new parent and has been conditioned to act as if she is taking care of a dribbling 3-month-old. This means that she will never develop an individual life of her own and will only find meaning in her children's love; she will want to eat them to consume their affection. This is the Oedipal mother, and she entirely rationalises dimorphous expression. Mothers, much like anyone confronted with overwhelming cuteness, have to both refrain from violent destruction and compassionate destruction, and hence they experience that overwhelming desire to lovingly bite or squeeze their precious baby. As you could gather, this begins to explain the Other Mother:

However, and this is where this movie becomes abstract, the Other Mother is also referred to as Beldam. "Beldam" means "hag" or "witch", and such a description would align the Other Mother with the archetypal 'evil step mother'.

In not only being an Oedipal, other, mother that Coraline mistakenly wishes for, but also an old hag, it becomes very clear that the connection between Mel, Coraline's actual mother, and Bedlam isn't singularly layered. We can understand this by considering the fact that Mel isn't very old, and never does Coraline really express such an idea (she may call her 'my old mother', but she always means 'past mother', never 'elderly mother'). What's more, and this is the more pressing issue, Beldam has trapped three children - one of whom is Wybie's great aunt.

This unequivocally suggest that Beldam isn't just Coraline's mother, but an archetype that transcends the confines of this family unit. As a result, when we come back to this opening image...

... it makes sense that Beldam strips the other girl, turns her inside out, re-fills her and constructs from her Coraline:

This suggests that the Other Mother is the spirit, or essence, of the Oedipal mother, which in turn implies that the manner in which children are raised propagates down their lineage. So, the fact that Beldam moves on from one 'daughter' to another suggests that the two girls are linked. What we would then assume is that this girl...

... is Mel, Coraline's mother:

However, she is not. That girl is quite clearly (*in my opinion, probably) Wybie's grandmother, Mrs. Lovat:

This is obvious as they not only look similar (notice how these figures are the only women of colour in this story), but also because one of the three trapped children are the grandmother's sister. Before moving on, I must clarify that I do not know who the two other children are. Coraline refers to one girl as an old pioneer girl and the boy Huck Finn Jr. before realising that the third is Wybie's grandmother's lost sister. These possible references to the first waves of American emigrants and then a character from a Mark Twain book do not add up to me, so this is something I have to leave blank. However, coming back to the idea that the doll in the opening shot is Wybie's grandmother, we actually have a debate on our hands.

Is the doll Wybie's grandmother, or is she her sister? Whilst we could argue that the doll is the sister because the Other mother has her trapped, I think the opposite is true. I have to say that this is debatable as, in the screenplay, the doll is described as such:

"The doll - which resembles a YOUNG BLACK GIRL in oldfashioned clothes, hair fixed with ribbons and braids - is placed on a sewing table."

With no name attached to the doll, we are stuck with ambiguity. But, to decipher our way out of the darkness, I think we should return to the idea that Beldam is an Oedipal mother and that Wybie's grandmother lost her sister. We could first rationalise that Beldam would keep the dolls of the children she has ensnared, but would have no use of those that she has lost. Thus, if we imagine that these two sisters...

... had the same Oedipal mother, but only one managed to break free from her (as Coraline does in the film), then the doll that the mother had of her would go to another use: Coraline.

We could then infer that the grandmother's representative was turned inside out to draw Coraline in to the Oedipal mother. This is a detail that I could be convinced functions with the sister, not the grandmother as the doll, but, either way, what this implies is that there is a tangible connection between Coraline and Wybie's grandmother. And we can confirm this with the end of the film; one of the final lines are...

CORALINE: (to Wybie's grandmother) My name is Coraline Jones. I have so much to tell you.

The whole movie seemingly builds up to this meeting. Why? Well, let us turn back to what we initially established. This is an Oedipal tale, one that does not necessarily concern itself with "penis envy". This implies that Coraline is not only about maturation, but a sexual awakening of sorts - and we can understand this through Coraline's age; it seems that she is transitioning into puberty. Because Coraline has no fixation with her father, it seems that Wybie, a potential first love or crush, has been inserted into this narrative. Thus, her conflict with her mother, in turn, ideas of childhood, are all centred on moving into puberty and being sexually awakened. However, one of the biggest conflicts teenagers may have to face when they first get a boyfriend or girlfriend is their parent's reaction - and not just their own parent's reaction; their boyfriend's or girlfriend's parents' reaction too. Thus, a reconciliation with the parents of both parties is pretty essential as they are relinquishing the care of their child onto their chosen partner - especially if the partnership is a serious one (after all, why are brides 'given away' when they are married). Understanding this makes obvious the idea that Coraline has to not only reconcile with her childhood and her mother, but also Wybie's grandmother - and this is exactly why they are connected in this movie.

This is the first major detail that we have to grasp to begin to understand this narrative, and the next concerns the idea of a 'sexual awakening'. After the opening, we see Coraline venture out of the house and run into the Cat...

... which scares her, leaving her to run towards the well:

These are two interesting events that aren't really built up to. Instead, we are left to backtrack once we find out a few things about this narrative. So, concerning the Cat, we have one of many pets in this story. Not only are there Mr. Bobinski's jumping mice, but there are also the dogs that Miss Spink and Miss Forcible keep. Added to this, we later get insects that surround the spider-like Beldam. All creatures in this narrative reflect something about the people they're attached to, and the Cat being attached to Wybie is particularly intriguing. As we later find out, the Cat can move between the real and the Other World as he pleases; it is a game that he and Beldam play. As we have established, one of the biggest conflicts that young sweethearts can face is one another's parents - and having to face an Oedipal mother must be a significant challenge. In fact, the love interest is what the Oedipal mother would fear the most for they are the person that is going to take away their source of love. Your daughter or son falling in love seems to be an inevitability, however. And this seems to be why the Cat (a representative for a love interest) is always at odds with Beldam. However, before we move on from this, there is a very important question that we must ask. Is Coraline's mother, Mel, Beldam; is she an Oedipal mother? The answer: no.

If anything, Mel is the opposite of an Oedipal mother; she is a little distant and neglectful. What we then have to keep in mind as we explore Coraline's sexual awakening is then idea that all the conflict that she faces is, in a certain way, manifested by herself. There could be plenty of reasons for Coraline to project her mother to be Beldam, but there are only two worth considering and one worth keeping. The first idea is that Coraline assumes that her mother would reject her choice of boyfriend. However, this is never really explored in the narrative. Instead, what is concerns Coraline infantalising herself. By wanting constant attention and for her parents to bend to her will, Coraline envisions a world in which she becomes the complete focus; a world that is ruled by the Oedipal mother...

Coraline soon discovers that this Other mother is a tyrant and a poison that will destroy her life and decimate her concept of her parents and of herself. What we must then hold onto as we move forward is the idea that Coraline was then searching for the well - she didn't only stumble upon it after being scared by the Cat (rather, what Wybie represents to her).

The well is in turn another symbol in this narrative that doesn't make any sense until the end. In essence, the well is naivety - which indicates that Coraline looking for the well in the beginning is possibly her trying to escape naivety (though, in a childish manner - a contradiction that seems to lie at the heart of her character as she shifts into puberty). This is poetically outlined with the following line:

Wybie: [The well is] supposed to be so deep that, if you fell into the bottom and looked up, you'd see a sky full of stars in the middle of the day.

This is a very old idea that dates as far back to Aristotle who assumed that, if you had a narrow enough field of vision, the brightness of the sky would be diminished to the point that you could see the heavens twinkling beyond. As a scientific fact, this is just wrong. And I think this is where an element of the naivety surrounding this well is implied. However, I'm struck by this line as the same thing is said in Tarkovsky's film, Ivan's Childhood.

Within his narrative, Tarkovsky seems to use this line bittersweetly. These are in fact words from Ivan's mother than imply that there is always hope no matter how deeply you have fallen into despair; even if you are trapped at the bottom of a dark hole, you still have the chance to see the heavens. But, after seeing his family killed and being thrust into war, such an idea is proved to be conceptually false. Ivan, arguably, then finds no stars to look up to - even if he does, there is an overwhelming bitterness to the sight of them.

To take this idea of hope and map it onto Coraline, we can see a parallel between hope and naivety; Coraline wishes that her parents gave her all the attention she wants, but soon learns that an Oedipal mother is just as good as hell. And this seems to be why she has to throw the key to childish imaginations (which is represented by the Other World) into the well at the end; she has to separate herself from naivety and childishness.

Interestingly enough, Coraline makes this pivotal step of maturation with Wybie at her side, which should indicate that we are ready to jump back into the exploration of her romantic awakening.

With Wybie as the Cat (in a certain sense), who are Mr. Bobinsky and Miss Spinks and Forcible in respect to their mice and dogs? This is something that is quite difficult to figure out as these animals don't reveal their symbolic subtext by themselves. Instead, we can only understand these animals, and in turn their owners, through the hierarchy they form; cat eats mouse, dog chases cat. Whilst things aren't as simple as such, it seems that the conflict that the animals come into speaks volumes. Firstly, the cat stays away from the house of dogs just like Wybie stays away from Miss Spinks and Miss Forcible because his grandmother warns him against them. What's more everyone warns Coraline against Mr. Bobinksy (her mother calls him a drunk). And so the conflict present between the mice and the Cat (Wybie), who comes to be Coraline's protector, implies quite a lot about Bobinsky being perceived as a threat. So, considering all of this conflict, it now makes sense that we recognise the pretty overt sexuality expressed by Mr. Bobinsky, Miss Spinks and Forcible...

This is something, especially the scene with the near-naked Miss Spinks and Miss Forcible, that has always stuck out as quite weird to everyone I have watched this movie with - and I suppose this is because these are the most absurd elements in which the subtext of the film is revealed. What both of these moments point to, however, are the aspects of life that the parents of this narrative try to keep their children naive to. We can understand this through the manner in which Coraline and Wybie are warned against the neighbours, but also with Mel's conservatism...

... conservatism that is made obvious with a juxtaposition to the Other Mother who lets a joke about how good her "golden chicken breasts" are slip by in only the scene before.

It's this refusal to be apart of the loss of Coraline's naivety that is Mel's biggest flaw and the basis of her character arc. However, let's not get ahead of ourselves. This shelter for naivety, which is connected to the symbol of the well, provided by both Wybie's grandmother and Coraline's parents is what primarily fuels the exploration of Mr. Bobinsky's, Miss Spinks' and Miss Forcible's homes. The mice are then something akin to exploration as they lead Coraline into the Other World:

Some questions we must ask here, however, are: are the mice bad? And, metaphorically, what have they got to do with Mr. Bobinski? To answer the latter first, the mice seem to encapsulate the idea of imagination; they lead Coraline to envisage Mr. Bobinski as a man that can communicate with mice and organise them into a performing troop (which he also believes himself to be able to do). Is this imagination a good thing? Is Mr. Bobinski just a delusional drunkard? The answer to this is complex and is actually the same as asking, is the Other World good? After all, whilst Coraline finds a lot of trouble in this place, just like Alice does as she falls down the rabbit role, she emerges the better for it. This implies that the mice are bad - that, if they are thought to be the performing mice that they seemingly are not, they become rats in disguise. Their job then seems to be to lure Coraline into a world in which she confronts childhood, maturity and sexuality - and Wybie is a significant aspect of this. The subtle sexuality...

... which could be interpreted to be symbolised by the mouse dance, and that Bobinski comes to represent with the show that he puts on for Coraline and the Other Wybie whilst they're on a 'date' is then cautionary. Bobinski may be a little crazy and he may have a bad past with women, which is why he may be single, but he doesn't seem malevolent. The same can be said for Miss Spinks and Miss Forcible.

This Shakespearean poem that they recite concerning Sirens and Sea Goddesses implies that these two figures are also alone because of their pasts with men - which is constantly hinted at between the two as they quarrel. However, if they are not romanticised to be great performers in their younger forms (much like Bobinski is), Miss Spinks and Miss Forcible become very helpful figures. Whilst Bobinski essentially sends Coraline into the Other World through his mice, Miss Spinks and Miss Forcible allow her to step out of it with perspective:

Thus, Coraline, after she has stepped into the world of her dreams in which she is pampered, only to realise that reality, however mundane or annoying, is what she prefers, then must reconcile with the sexual elements of Mr. Bobinski, Miss Spinks and Miss Forcible as well as understand their downfalls. As a result, not only is Mr. Bobinski seen as the slightly nutty old man who parades around in vests and too short shorts...

... and not only are Spinks and Forcible seen as a little too comfortable in their own skin...

... but everyone is recognised to be performers. This means that they hold deceptive facades that, if understood as such can be harmless entertainment, but, if took too seriously can be misleading. Thus, learning to see Bobinski, and so men, as potentially an empty sack of rats...

... implies to Coraline that men can put on performances on something like first dates. And an interesting caveat to this is certainly Wybie's clothes hanging outside Bobinski's house.

The Other Mother seems to drain him and put him on display to warn Coraline against him - and after bringing to two together on their date (but, on disingenuous terms; Wybie is made silent - and this is not true of reality; Wybie talks a lot and Coraline will have to reconcile with this if they are to be friends). But, whilst Coraline learns and comes to terms with the manner in which men may be deceitful through Bobinski, she learns of the same thing in respect to women through Spinks and Forcible.

Not only does Coraline not want to own dozens of dogs as sources for affection, dog's that, because they are not humans, seemingly suck away the opportunity for genuine human interaction...

... but, Coraline doesn't want to be an entanglement of a sweet past that turned stale and hard over time:

In turn, through these three figures and their pets, Coraline seems to learn a lot - which contributes to the idea that she has to mature knowing how other's can help her. And it's knowing that, the idea of acknowledging the help of others, that seems to be the solution to battling the Oedipal mother; instead of clinging to this one figure, Coraline must utilise her social group. Coraline figures this out when she is presented with the buttons.

As we have touched on, perspective is everything in this movie. Coraline is gaining this through her experiences in the Other World and by figuring out how she is wrong in the manner in which she perceives people and her own desires. When she is presented with the buttons, she realises that Beldam is the suffocating Oedipal mother that wants to eat her - and so she tries to escape.

However, she wakes up in the Other World. It's here where she realises that grave mistakes don't just evaporate; the elements of her persona that yearn infantalisation and the Oedipal mother must be confronted. And so, from here, Coraline stands up to her Other mother...

... who assures that "even the proudest spirit can be broken... with love" - perfect words to surmise what the Oedipal mother wants. However, in standing up to her, her parasitic and insect-like nature is revealed:

This leads to Coraline being thrown behind a mirror...

... and into a purgatory of sorts with the three other ghost children until she learns to be a 'loving daughter'. Behind the mirror, Coraline has to then reflect upon the idea of hope and naivity, of seeing a sky full of stars in the middle of the day from the bottom of a deep well:

In such, Coraline is confronted with the trap that the Oedipal mother can present, but also the notion of perspective that we have already covered. This occurs through her meeting with the three children who offer her a way out of this purgatory in the form of responsibility; she has to recover their ghost eyes.

Because we have indirectly discussed two of these ghost eyes already, we won't delve too deeply into this. In short, the perpetual damnation of the three ghosts is what ensures Coraline must return (on top of the loss of her parents). But, having come back to the great aunt...

... we must again ask a question. What does this narrative conflict have to do with Wybie's grandmother and her sister?

Remembering that it was Wybie who pulled Coraline out of the mirror, it seems that he is willing to save her from her problems as long as she refuses to recognise them. After all, back in the real world in the next scene, Wybie runs out on Coraline, calling her crazy, when she tries to explain to him what went on in the Other World (compare this to the end when he realises she was right).

This suggests that part of Coraline's journey is staying in contact with Wybie who, along with Mr. Bobinskie, started her on this path of assessing her childish yearnings for attention. As a result, we can see the maturity and reconciliation with the Oedipal mother as catalysed by the grandson of Mrs. Lovat to be a quest made for, as suggested previously, not just Coraline, but her parents and the carer of her possible love interests too. So, the link between Coraline, Mrs. Lovat and her sister may be based on the fact that Mrs. Lovat's sister fell prey to an Oedipal mother. To confront these demons laced throughout the small community around the Pink Palace seems to be Coraline and Wybie's joint task.

This seems to be why, like Pinnochio has to venture into the belly of the whale, Coraline has to return to the Other World after escaping to not only save her parents, but recover the ghost eyes. Furthermore, the reconciliation with many of the demons and conflicts that Coraline comes into contact with can only be sealed when she turns her back on the key to, and the guiding hand of, the Oedipal mother - which are in this bag:

To bring things towards a conclusion, we must then touch on the only ghost eye, or conflict, that we haven't yet mentioned:

As we have alluded to many times now, this story is centred on Coraline's maturation and an awakening; but she cannot do this alone, she in fact needs help from every character in this narrative - all of whom have issues that she must come to terms with. But, whilst Coraline must learn to put up with Wybie and maybe confront the fact that she likes him; whilst she must come to terms with the eccentric performers about her (Mr. Bobinski, Miss Spinks and Miss Forcible), she must also reconcile with her parents. As has been mentioned, Coraline doesn't have an Oedipal, over-protective mother or father, instead, they are sometimes cold, sometimes distant and do not often engage her as she is growing up. What she then wants them to do is help her tend her garden; she wants them to help her bloom.

This is the egocentric element of her character and is a large part of what gets her into trouble with the Oedipal mother who constructs a sinister fantasy for her. However, in seeing both of her parents most extreme caricatures - just as she sees the most extreme caricatures of her childish fantasies with Wybie, Mr. Bobinski, Miss Spinks and Miss Forcible - Coraline has a chance to enter reality with fresh eyes. This is why her father becomes a puppet at the piano and her mother a spider; they become her ultimate ideal and then worst nightmare, which allows her to return home and see them for who they really are. And because Coraline takes that initial step, she manages to free her parents from her memory of childhood...

... which is what this snow globe represents, and in turn the whole community around her seems to come together to help her grow and flourish.

Having hopefully covered most of the major elements of this narrative, I think it is now a little more clear that this is an inexhaustible story; there are so many details that I haven't been able to mention. Beyond that, however, I hope it has also become apparent that Coraline is about a few key things: perspective, maturation, awakening and change. Taking these tools, I hope you can re-watch this film and find more than I have. So, with that said I'll end by asking: what are you thoughts on all we've covered today?

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