“Be careful what you wish for,” warns the tagline for Coraline. The animated film, based on Neil Gaiman’s novella of the same name, imagines all sorts of horrors that might occur if you get it. We would expect nothing less from Henry Selick, the director of Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas and James and the Giant Peach. Coraline is quite the scary dream come to life, a fairy tale in the tradition of Grimm or Perrault, meaning the risks it imagines for kids are not trivial (kidnapping, dismemberment, and death). The movie points out not only that wishes fulfilled can go awry, but also suggests that such going awry is a very necessary part of any happy ending.
Coraline (voiced by Dakota Fanning) and her profoundly inattentive writer-parents have just moved into a new apartment. Left to her own devices while mom (Teri Hatcher) and dad (John Hodgman) work, she sets out to explore. Unlike the standard parent/child relationship wherein the kid can’t wait to escape the adults’ gaze, Coraline spends the film’s first moments seeking her parents’ attention and companionship (an effort that underscores for us that they are undeserving). But her mother makes it clear to Coraline that each of their roles in the family is firmly established: “Dad cooks, I clean, and you stay out of the way!” It’s not so much that they dislike her. It’s more like they can’t be bothered.
When Coraline finds a secret door in her living room, she crawls through to discover another, seemingly better, version of her own life: the same living room but with a homier décor, a cool girly bedroom, and, most surprising, new parents. They look just like her real parents, but with big, black buttons for eyes, something Coraline chooses to overlook since the self-proclaimed “other mother” and “other father” actually want her around to love and look after. Initially dazzled by her parallel life, Coraline finds there is a sinister side to it when her other parents make clear they want her to stay with them forever. When her real parents are kidnapped by the other mother, Coraline must figure out how to save everyone.
While Coraline’s self-reliance is a slight twist on a familiar formula, she does have to learn a lesson or two, in particular that self-indulgence is ultimately dangerous. Sure, it’s nice to be in a world where everything is Coraline-centric (a garden that is a portrait of her face, mouse acrobats spelling her name with their tails), especially when her real parents ignore her. But obsessive parents are worse, a point made plain the other mother screams, “I’ll die without you!” and sad kid ghosts with button eyes (past victims) warn her that the other mother “ate up our lives.”
The other mother is mother-love gone berserk, all-consuming and self-serving. “She just wants something to love,” Coraline’s feline guide (Keith David) explains, “or maybe she wants something to eat.” Compared to the other mother’s deception, Coraline’s real parents’ shortcomings look admirable: at least they’re honest about their disinterest and distraction. But they’re not exactly who they seem to be either: they write about gardening but don’t garden, just as they are parents who don’t parent. Their redemption is inevitable, but they remain oblivious to Coraline’s heroics.
The cat who accompanies her between worlds is, by contrast, keenly observant, if typically cryptic. “You probably think this is a dream come true,” he tells her, “but it’s not.” It’s hard to say what he means: is he warning Coraline to beware the other mother or her own desires? Perhaps he is suggesting she’s only dreaming? The lines between worlds remain slippery, even when she decides where she wants to be.