Has Caitlin Flanagan seen Coraline? Much like The Incredibles, but with far less fanfare, Henry Selick’s stop-motion animated film says very disturbing things about present-day parenting. First, and apparently always, moms can’t win. Coraline’s real Mother is grumpy, overworked and undermining, too busy to cook but too fussy to let her daughter play in the mud. Coraline’s Other Mother (the Red Queen in SAHM disguise) is sugary, catering and castrating, with nothing better to do than cook and shop and decorate. She’s a present-day parody of the 1950s sitcom mom, complete with apron and Xanax smile, but she turns out to need far too much love in return for her services. That’s when things get far too scary for kids, but rather spectacularly thrilling for adults. You’ll never look at a snapdragon the same way again.
There’s an obvious contrast being made between the real world and Coraline’s through-the-looking-glass world in terms of working and waiting and wanting. In the real world, her bedroom is rather plain (although quite chic in its Swedish grays), but everything in it has personal meaning. In the Other world her room is gussied up in pink, with matching duvet and canopy, and lots of beeping and blurting new toys. It’s IKEA versus Disney Princess. In the real world she gets a special treat of stripy funky gloves. In the Other world it is new matching outfits and cake for dinner. In the real world the parents have other things besides Coraline on their mind. In the Other world it is all about her.
Even her name is a Otherworldly joke. People in the real world keep getting it wrong, calling her Caroline, which is in my mind the name of a little girl with golden curls and a tutu. Probably cute and funny and smart, but for someone like me, who shopped in the Sears boys department, a little scary. But she’s a Coraline, stlightly off, with a blue bob, wearing a raincoat and puddle-jumpers.
The problem with the movie’s mirroring is that I don’t think the real Mother was doing such a great job either. Yes, Coraline turns out to be resourceful, independent and heroic, an excellent role model, but we don’t get the sense that that’s the point of her parents’ neglect. Have her parents (ostensibly garden writers, though we never see them outdoors until the very end) taught her any skills? Given her art supplies? A flowerpot? A cookbook? It doesn’t seem like it, as we never see her making anything. And this is strange in a film whose message, from the opening credit sequence framed in sepia lace, seems to be valorizing craft. The creepy first scene, with mechanical hands unfastening and refashioning a rag doll is wonderful for its attention to detail, seam-ripper correctly deployed, yarn hair invisibly tacked on. The butterflies that ornament Coraline’s minimal real-world chamber are cut-outs, but we don’t see her tracing them out of a book and wielding the scissors. The filmmakers seem like they would be good, creative parents, and the animation is a wonder for its richness and detail, but the parents in the film don’t exhibit the same level of taste.