Catholic Movie Club: ‘Coraline’ is a love story with an edge
The Catholic Movie Club is a short weekly essay pulling out spiritual themes in our favorite films. You can discuss the movies with other readers in the comments on this page or in our Facebook group. Find past Catholic Movie Club selections here.
So much of growing up is learning what love really is. When we’re young, we gravitate towards people and groups whose love makes us feel special and important. Love that’s exciting and adventurous, without any of the dull spots or disappointments.
But that sort of love often comes with conditions, which only reveal themselves once we’re in too deep. What we first hear as “you are loved” reveals itself as “you are loved… if.” If we’re willing to do what they say. If we’re willing to contort ourselves into a more acceptable shape. If we’re willing to give them whatever they ask. That’s when we realize that this exciting, thrilling love isn’t love at all.
Believe it or not, this week’s film is my family-friendly selection for the month.
So much of growing up is learning what love really is. ‘Coraline’ reminds use what love is not.
“Coraline” (2009) is one of those movies that people always say “traumatized” them as children. Speaking as an adult who just watched it for the first time last weekend, it still has the power to terrify even if you’re all grown up. Directed and written by spooky auteur Henry Selick (“The Nightmare Before Christmas”), based on Neil Gaiman’s spine-tingling novella, and brought to life in creepy, meticulous stop-motion by Laika animation studios, it’s an unnerving fable about the dangers of wishes and the price we’re asked to pay to make them come true.
Coraline Jones (Dakota Fanning) has just moved to a strange house in the middle of the woods with her parents (Teri Hatcher and John Hodgman) and she couldn’t be more unhappy. She misses her old town and friends. Her work-from-home parents (a situation that was undoubtedly novel in 2009 but now feels all too familiar ) are too busy to pay attention to her. One night, she discovers a door behind the wallpaper that leads to another world: a brighter, more fanciful version of her own with alternate versions of her parents. Her Other Mother and Father are everything her real parents aren’t: fun, doting, and always ready with a game or a song or a gift. They also have buttons instead of eyes, but Coraline is able to look past that.
Eventually, the Other Mother tells Coraline she can stay with her forever… if she pays a horrifying price. With the darkness of this seemingly perfect world revealed, Coraline has to rely on all of her courage and wit—and a sardonic cat (Keith David)—to save herself and her parents.
As an adult, you might think: “Why doesn’t she run as soon as she sees they have buttons for eyes?” But how often do we ignore someone’s red flags when they’re offering us everything we’ve ever wanted? False love, like the Other Mother’s, requires a sort of blindness (although not usually literal blindness, as she demands). When I think back on bad relationships I had when I was young, the warning signs were always there from the start. I ignored them because I wanted to believe the promises of those relationships: purpose or belonging or an escape from the mundane.
As we grow, we learn that love, even divine love, very often is mundane. “Love is patient, love is kind,” St. Paul tells us in 1 Corinthians. “It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.” We’re so used to hearing that at weddings—often the epitome of love-as-pageantry—that we forget how ordinary that can look in day-to-day life. It’s not fireworks or a thousand rose petals falling from the ceiling; it’s emptying the dishwasher or pouring a glass of wine as your partner pulls into the driveway. It’s not a pony on your birthday or endless fun and games; it’s a parent on a budget buying their daughter a hoped-for pair of gloves, just to make her happy.
Growing up involves learning to see in new ways. “Coraline” encourages us to see the true value in the everyday love we so easily take for granted. But it is, first and foremost, a cautionary tale. Beware of those who promise you everything you’ve ever wanted. Those promises always come with a price.
“Coraline” is free to stream on Max and DirecTV, and available to rent or buy on Amazon Prime and Apple TV+.