This article is part of our One Perfect Archive project, a series of deep dives that explore the filmmaking craft behind some of our favorite shots. In this entry, we explore the dark family themes in Coraline.
Over the past decade, stop-motion studio Laika has proven itself to be an animation powerhouse. With a strong crop of critically acclaimed hits, the Oregon-based studio has created a successful brand around their heartwarming, intricately imagined stop-motion features. With that success in mind, let’s take a look back at the film that kickstarted it all: Henry Selick’s visually stunning and horror-tinged Coraline.
Based on the children’s novella of the same name by Neil Gaiman, Coraline follows its titular heroine (voiced by Dakota Fanning) on a journey of finding and accepting her roots. Initially dissatisfied with her humdrum life in a new tenement house, she stumbles upon a world where everything — the food, the neighbors, even her parents — is simply better. At least that’s how things seem on the surface. Throughout the film, we witness the Other world devolve into a nightmare, as Coraline’s button-eyed Other Mother (Teri Hatcher) slowly reveals a set of more sinister intentions. Ultimately, Coraline must venture through this terrifying world to find her real family, in more ways than one.
Coraline is a unique kind of family film. After all, it is a story that’s primarily marketed towards children, and yet it does not shy from using visual cues from the horror genre to frame its protagonist’s everyday childhood fears — from boredom to isolation — as formidable, even disturbing. The filmmakers, in turn, force Coraline to face these terrors by forming a duality between her two sets of parents, and the two mirrored realities in which they live.
At the start of the film, we are presented with a characteristically dilapidated Victorian home called the “Pink Palace.” Between its muted colors and insular mountaintop locale, we’re immediately called to feel a sense of gloom, of foreboding. Indeed, the Victorian mansion is a loaded image in horror, often housing the likes of ghosts, ghouls, and monstrous families. The film leans further into that visual economy by presenting us with even more creepy imagery from the outset: a seemingly infinite underground well, a prowling black cat, and a decaying garden littered with poison oak branches. Besides making us feel uneasy, all of this imagery points to one fact: this reality would be a bummer to live in.
No one feels the effects of that gloom more than Coraline herself. On a walking tour of the Palace, she lazily counts its dusty, cracked windows, squashes a legion of cockroaches, and bemoans a painting of a tearful, “boring blue boy.” Her most emotionally fraught moments, however, come from her interactions with her parents. Both workaholic writers, they often brush Coraline’s pleas for attention aside in favor of completing their daily tasks, perennially clacking away on their bulky home computers. To Coraline, a host of creepy imagery isn’t the only thing that makes this house horrific; the real upset comes from the inattentiveness of the adults who live inside.
Upon entering the Other World, however, Coraline’s wishes for a more exciting reality seem to be answered. The dilapidation of her previous home is sharply contrasted with this new manor’s vibrant colors, well-kept rooms, and whimsical accents. It’s even got a self-playing piano—with arms! Additionally, the family that lives in this version of the Pink Palace proves to be everything that their real-life counterparts are not: attentive, imaginative, and excellent at cooking. Sure they have buttons for eyes, but that’s not important, at least to our heroine’s initial assessment. She’s found a new family, and they’re giving her everything she feels that she’s been missing: constant fun, and a sense of belonging.
Of course, that fun doesn’t last too long. It’s slowly revealed that the Other Pink Palace houses an infinitely more monstrous entity: that of the Other Mother, better known as the Beldam. As it turns out, the Other World is a construction of the Beldam’s design, masterfully crafted to lure unhappy children into her clutches for eternity. The wholesome illusion of the Other World soon breaks apart, and we bear witness to its once vibrant and whimsical iconography becoming a new set of horrors. Dancing circus mice are huge, snarling rats. The self-playing piano now puppets the Other Father (John Hodgman) with its spiny metal limbs, and the ghosts of button-eyed children hover behind the manor’s walls, begging for help.
Ultimately, the stark contrast between these two worlds forces Coraline to make a judgment call: she needs to decide which set of parents would be more horrific to live with. And after seeing the Other Mother evolve into a spindly spider-woman, it’s no contest. Coraline’s journey towards valuing her true family doesn’t end with her fleeing back into her real parents’ arms, though. Soon after she retreats from the horrific Other World, her real parents are kidnapped and held hostage by the Beldam, and so she must once again venture into this terrifying reality to win them back.
Only after conquering the Beldam’s web herself does Coraline make the emotional leap of accepting her real parents as they are, faults and all. With her success in the Other World, she’s also more prepared to face the everyday terrors of her reality, as they pale in comparison to anything she witnessed of the Beldam’s twisted design. The creepier features of her new home even become sources of comfort for her—that infinite underground well becomes the final resting place of the Beldam’s remnants, the prowling black cat becomes a loyal friend, and in the film’s closing moments, Coraline works to beautify that snarled garden with her parents and neighbors. She makes peace with her world and the people who live in it.
Coraline offers us a vision of a dark but no-less affecting kind of found-family story. By rooting its imagery in horror conventions, the filmmakers create a challenging vehicle through which children (and adults) can explore their deepest fears, their desires to belong. Most importantly, Coraline’s emotional arc shows us that facing our fears is a part of everyday life; as Gaiman explained in an EW interview, “Being brave doesn’t mean you’re not scared. It means you’re scared and you do the right thing anyway.” Coraline’s family and home may be imperfect and full of terrors, but that’s what makes it real, and that’s what makes it hers.