[This appeared first at The Jagged Word on November 2.]
Coraline (2008, streaming on Amazon Prime) might be the perfect movie for All Saints or All Souls (not that I’m praying for the dead in Purgatory, understand). What a great, semi-frightening children’s movie that gets to the heart of what matters in a family. I don’t know how closely it follows the story by Neil Gaiman, but the film is profound in ways I didn’t expect.
Coraline moves to a new place in Oregon, brown and barren, far away from her friends, with parents who seem to ignore her or want her to go somewhere else and leave them alone. They’re in the middle of their work, and since it’s raining, Coraline is forced to explore the old house in which they live. She discovers a pathway to an alternate world, where her Other Mother and Other Father are everything that she wants from her own parents. But be careful what you long for. You might get it.
The mother cooks everything Coraline loves, and the father plays games and sings songs about her. He even plants a fantastic garden in the shape of her face. But it’s not only her Other parents who are different, but the neighbors as well. The Other neighbors do things they don’t do in real life. And her neighbor Wybie—who bothers her in the real world—is silenced, so Coraline gets to be the only one talking. After all, that’s one of her main complaints: no one listens to her in the real world. People call her Caroline instead of Coraline, and they seem to do everything in spite of her.
On the other hand, everything in the Other world seems to be geared entirely toward her. It’s her Utopia, and everything pleases her. But as one might expect, that world is not everything it appears to be. Her dreamt Utopia becomes a nightmare when she decides that she wants to stay there. In order to stay, she has to have buttons sewn over her eyes like everyone else in the Other world.
It’s not that there isn’t any validity to Coraline’s complaints about the real world. Her parents do ignore her. No one but her friends back in Michigan do seem to understand her or listen to her. Wybie talks too much and teases her. To her, the people she meets are strange and say her name incorrectly. Her real world is mundane and typical and boring, and she is easily pushed to the side by other people’s self-concern.
But maybe the problem isn’t entirely theirs. And Coraline, slowly and dangerously, is changed into a girl who empathizes with her parents, her neighbors, and even Wybie.
This is not just a story for selfish children, a fable with a moral about thinking about others instead of just yourself. (Not bad advice, of course.) This is a story for all of us, because Coraline’s temptations are ours. We are all tempted to view as mundane and unexciting the place in which we actually live, the people with whom we actually live, the things we actually have to do. No one naturally likes to do the things that are right in front of us, required by the typical events of every single day, one damn thing after another. We all have ideas of what a perfect world would be like and what we would like to see in it. We know whom we would strike silent, what we’d like to eat, who would serve us and play with us: a world that, in short, revolves around us—especially if we feel ignored or under-appreciated.
And this temptation is all the more dangerous when it’s not in an imaginary world where the beautiful Other Mother is actually a spider entrapping prey in her own created web of a world. It’s far more dangerous to try and create such Utopias in the real world, because then the lessons we have to learn are carried out with consequences for real people. And Coraline’s Other world predicts how every single one of those false Utopias—really, Atopias—will turn out. They will be destructive and degrading and become, in the end, far worse than the world we are trying to change.
When you take elements of a world that is, as St. Paul tells us, subject to futility for the time being, you cannot create something pure and holy and perfect. It will become—like the Other world disintegrating—nothing and no-place. It cannot be other than a trap for those who refuse to do what they’ve been given to do here and now, where we should hope instead for the day when “the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God” (Romans 8:21).
But without that hope, we must create everything ourselves. And if we must create, then we can use whatever is around us as fodder for our grandiose and delusional projects. We can use things; we can use people; we can use institutions; we can use God—and because we believe in the absolute rightness of our causes in the name of Progress, all wrongs are made right, and all means are good if they lead to our ends. But of course, they will lead only to our end. The gods we make of our Utopias are as jealous as the Other Mother, and they will not easily let us go.
But St. Coraline, with the help of Wybie, buries her old, destructive dream, and goes back to the “boring” life she wanted to leave behind. And there she discovers that her parents really do love her and work for her sake; her neighbors are simply living with the results of their own lives; and Wybie isn’t so bad after all. She can be happy in the midst of the mundane, and the community created around the Pink Palace is worth living in after all.
Perhaps it can be so for us as well. St. Coraline, pray for us.