Coraline: Postmodern Gothic/Not Just for Children

Posted by Sarah Anderson on December 01, 2010 in Blog, Reviews tagged with , , ,

Coraline: Postmodern Gothic/Not Just for Children

Sarah Anderson, University of Stirling

It is necessary to begin this post with a disclaimer: Coraline is a children’s novel by Neil Gaiman. A fact I have only recently become aware of, so, needless to say, I haven’t read it. I am, however, a massive fan of Coraline, the film, written and directed by Henry Selick and based on (who knew?) Gaiman’s novel. But the point of this blog is that the film Coraline stands alone as a text that merits literary analysis despite its frequent marginalisation as children’s animation. So I hope literature lovers will forgive me if I analyse Coraline as a stand-alone film, after this brief nod to its previous existence in novel format *nod*. Finally, to those who are well-versed in their film theory, forgive me, but I’m going to analyse Coraline as if it were literature; despite the fact of there being a distinct lack of pages and words. I am a literature student after all.

Coraline is frequently categorised as a child’s animation or ‘family’ film. Fine; Coraline is a film about a child, on a superficial level it deals with childhood anxieties and it is full quirky characters and the occasional talking animal. But the problem occurs not with this acknowledgement of the film’s appeal to children, but the consequences this has of trivialising its literary merit. There are, however, those reviewers who acknowledge the film’s intellectual merit and thus point out that Coraline is not just for children, but one still gets the sense here that while Coraline is not just for children, it is nevertheless mainly for children, which means it can easily be dismissed as mere entertainment- smart, quirky, and slightly dark entertainment, but entertainment nonetheless. In the case of Coraline, it seems that to pigeon hole the film in the context of its juvenile appeal is an unnecessary restriction of the interpretive field within which to discuss it. Indeed, I would argue that Coraline is, in fact, more than worthy of serious critical analysis with its subtle modulations of narrative, self-referentiality and sophisticated negotiation of dual worlds.

Coraline follows the story of a girl, the film’s namesake, who moves with her apparently unloving mother and father to a new home. While the bored Coraline is exploring her new house, she comes across a tiny door which turns out to be a passage to another- an ‘other’-, seemingly perfect world. In this world Coraline has an other-mother and an other-father, who

Coraline's Other mother and father

offer the love and nurture that Coraline fails to get from her own parents. It turns out, of course, that this world is actually the lair of the evil spider-like beldam (read monstrous feminine), built to entrap unhappy children so that she can feed parasitically from their love.

Even at the level of plot, Coraline reveals its theoretical significance. The ‘other’ (the other-mother, the (m)other) is a critically loaded term taking centre stage in post-structuralism, post-colonialism, gender theory and postmodern theory generally. Furthermore, the image of a


threatening, consuming, monstrous mother recalls the fear of absorption by the pre-oedipal mother which is a recurrent theme in both Gothic and psychoanalytic theory. Indeed, Coraline readily lends itself to such readings, being fraught with psychoanalytic images. After she reveals herself as the evil Beldam, the other-mother’s garden turns into a psychoanalytic nightmare with phallic and vaginal symbols galore. This is a development of a theme already established in the film, begun with Coraline’s desperation to grow a garden which is set in contrast to her academic parents who write about flowers but never actually grow them, evoking the sterile world of scientific categories and, dare I say it, academia. Coraline’s desire finds its sinister realisation in the other-mother’s world of excessive fertility, which makes one wonder at the extent to which this film expresses a latent misogynism in its fear of the reproductive powers of the mother.

But what is far more sophisticated about Coraline is its self-consciousness. The film continually disrupts the suspension of disbelief through Coraline’s very name, as is exemplified by Bobinsky who mistakenly calls Coraline Caroline and criticises his mice for ‘mistakenly’ calling her Coraline. Through Bobinsky the film vocalises the experience of the viewer, every time we hear the word ‘Coraline’, we think ‘Caroline’ so that we always trip over the name. Thus Coraline is haunted by an other-name, the one we expect to hear.  In this way the film repetitively cites out-with itself through the oscillations between Coraline and Caroline, intentionally cracking the illusory mirror.


This citational effect also works internally in that Coraline’s ‘original’ world seems to cite its ‘fictional’ counterpart. The other-mother creates a beautiful garden in the image of Coraline’s face. At the end of the film, as the camera pulls away from Coraline and her friends and family celebrating in her new tulip garden, we see that this garden also resembles Coraline’s face, just as the other-mother’s garden did; the garden is an image of which the other-garden is the origin. Furthermore, Coraline’s friend, Wybie, never stops looking a bit like his

doll-counterpart created by the other-mother. Of course the irony of this film is that, being stop-frame animation, the real Wybie is a doll, which questions which world is more ‘real’, the world in which Wybie is human, or the world in which he is a doll. So, in Coraline, the original cites its counterfeit, just as the counterfeit cites the original, thus collapsing the distinction between the two. This problematising of counterfeit and original is also developed through the other-

mother’s beginning to refer to herself as merely ‘mother’ as Coraline spends more time with her, which suggests that the distinction between primary and secondary worlds is merely a linguistic one. This recalls the poststructuralist notion that the ‘Other’ is only made other because it is signified as such. In this way Coraline seems less and less like an interesting children’s film, and more like an intelligent modern text which happens to appeal to children.

This intelligent modulation of fiction and reality is also executed through the film’s combination of traditional stop-frame and, the latest block-buster guarantee, 3D animation. Interestingly, these two features, one seemingly out-dated in the age of computer animation and the other more associated with ticket sales than artistic merit, combine beautifully to produce a contemporarily relevant literary text. In stop-frame animation, the characters portrayed have a corporeal reality; the images created are from the tiny movements of actual models. The 3D images in Coraline have the effect of haunting the viewer, so that the fictional world of the image threatens their physical reality. For example, the openi

ng scene depicts the monstrous other-mother’s sewing a Coraline doll to spy on the real Coraline; as the doll floats out of the window, the 3D effect makes its seem to literally float away from the viewer, so though it is moving away, there is an unsettling sense that what should be absent (the image) is physically present.  The film therefore haunts the spectator by being simultaneously absent and present so that the distinction between image and reality breaks down.

In this way it seems that, in Coraline, the fictional invades the real, but at the same time draws attention to its own fictionality by gesturing to its origin in clay models both structurally –through 3D- and thematically, through its preoccupation with dolls. This is literally rendered in the paper mice which are at one point seen to spiral out of the tunnel to the other-world. Their physicality draws attention to their artificiality but at the same time, it is this physicality that threatens the implicit boundaries between spectator and image.

The slippage between worlds is not only produced through the 3D effect. The film also switches between genres. When Coraline has to find the ghost-children’s eyes in order to defeat the Beldam, the film slips into a computer game format, Coraline has to solve cl

The Other-Mother's Garden

ues and defeat various enemies to collect the treasure (eyes). This is particularly interesting in that a computer game implicitly requires interaction between the spectator and the image on the screen, which further problematises the distinction between fact and fiction, so that the established positions of present spectator and absent image become unfixed. In this way, the film self-referentially redefines categories of fiction and reality for, within the frame of the film, the world of the other- mother is not a fictional world, but is the world of fiction, of representation and of self-referentiality, where Coraline sees herself represented over and over again: she sees her face in her other-mother’s garden, sees her name written by performing mice and becomes part of Spink and Forcible’s show. As such, the Beldam’s lair is a chillingly postmodern world.

What is it, then, that makes Coraline a child’s film aside from its ‘PG’ certificate? Sometimes we are taken in too easily by ‘genre’. We see a child protagonist and stop-frame animation and assume we already know what a text is going to do and where is it going to go. While I am not saying that Coraline does not carry these generic tags, I am saying that, in choosing to foreground these tags, we eliminate other, far more interesting ones. Surely problematising distinction of fiction and reality structurally and thematically as Coraline does is far more relevant in the wake of postmodernism than some more ‘adult’ genres which feature human actors in the ‘real’ world?

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