Coraline has this weirdness halo in the minds of its biggest fans, and I’m one of them. It’s remembered fondly for being so uniquely creepy and disturbing. And it is genuinely weird, especially for a kids’ movie, but when we start looking at the structure underneath Coraline, we find a pretty standard story, one that communicates a simple lesson that is common in children’s entertainment.
If we try to summarize the messaging of Coraline, it basically comes down to: be careful what you wish for and be grateful for what you have.
So the messaging is common, and the story structure, as we’re about to see, is standard fare.
But this article isn’t trying to convince anyone that Coraline is bad. It’s not, it’s an extremely memorable movie with some fantastic visuals and scare-moments.
The real mission here is to prove that even standard storytelling techniques, in the hands of talented artists, can still be used to create something unique and compelling.
Yet Another Explanation of The Hero’s Journey
The Hero’s Journey refers to a specific storytelling structure/arc that has been commonly used for hundreds, if not thousands, of years. The specific term was coined and elaborated on by Joseph Campbell, especially in his book The Hero with a Thousand Faces.
In the simplest possible form, the Hero’s Journey involves a hero being called to adventure, at which point they leave their comfort zone, overcome some challenges, often with the help of external characters and forces, and eventually overcome the biggest obstacle, then returning home, having changed.
There are certain stories that were written with the Hero’s Journey specifically in mind (the first Star Wars movie is the common example), but at this point, the Hero’s Journey structure is just part of our collective cultural consciousness.
Therefore, even if specific writers aren’t consciously aware of the Hero’s Journey, most narratives conform to this structure.
And if we sit down to do some Coraline plot analysis, we can see pretty quickly that the story fits the Hero’s Journey very well.
Example Time (Spoilers)
Just for fun, let’s run through the ways in which Coraline fits into the Hero’s Journey story structure.
We start with Coraline, moving into the Pink Palace with her parents. This is the world of the known, the familiar. Some people might argue that she already starts in the unknown, but this isn’t true, and the proof is that Coraline is bored, painfully bored.
There’s nothing about her surroundings that interest her, and she quickly annoys her parents until the mom gives her a McGuffin-y task to keep her occupied.
The call to adventure comes from the little door she finds in the apartment. This is the beginning of her transformation, and it’s also the story catalyst.
The Cat, whose name is just The Cat, serves multiple functions in the story. He’s kind of the threshold guardian, but he’s also a mentor/helper during the early moments of her journey into the unknown.
Then come the challenges and temptations, and my goodness, it’s mostly just temptations for a while. Other Mother offers this menagerie of activities and material goods designed specifically to tempt Coraline to stay in this alternate world, where she will eventually be devoured by Other Mother, who is actually a horrible monster, the Beldam.
The point of revelation is when Coraline meets the Beldam’s previous victims in the closet. This is also the low-point at the tail-end of Act II and the rest of the challenges all lead to the final confrontation with the Beldam, right before she returns to the world of the known, now more appreciative of her family and the normal world.
Why Do We Love it?
Analysis of Coraline has become an SEO darling, and I think that’s mostly because, after watching Coraline, it feels like you’ve just experienced something new and exciting. And you have, but none of that feeling comes from the plot structure itself.
The things that make Coraline special are everything else: the characters, the visuals, the monsters, and, most importantly, the creeping sense of dread and claustrophobia.
I’m even of the opinion that our lead, Dakota Fanning, did a pretty job with the voice acting here. Not trying to knock Dakota, but I also don’t think she’s the reason so many people have connected with this movie.
So what can we learn from Coraline? How can we make our own art that feels special and unique while still using pretty basic storytelling structure?
The tone is the real star of the movie, and that’s what I’d like to focus on here.
An Oily Piglet
Tone, in movies, books, and just about any other media, can be hard to pin down. Or rather, it’s easy enough to identify the tone of a piece of art, but figuring out how that tone is achieved can be a lot more difficult.
Why? Because tone is itself gestalt: it’s an easily definable thing that is the result of many different elements. Quick example: the individual pixels on your screen are assigned different colors based on what is being displayed. When you watch a YouTube video, you’re not watching the original video but a really impressive recreation of the original content.
So, the tone of Coraline is creepy, uncomfortable, and it makes you feel like a scared kid. But how does it achieve that tone?
It’s a combination of a whole lot of things. The writing is a part of it, sure, and the score music also does a lot of heavy lifting.
But to me, Coraline is a testament to the incredible power of animation, character design, production design, and artistic collaboration in general.
Henry Selick served as the director, writer, and production designer for Coraline, and it’s impossible to talk about Coraline’s tone without exploring his role and his general artistic style.
Selick also directed The Nightmare Before Christmas and James and the Giant Peach, so there’s a good chance you’re already familiar with his work, as well as some highly experimental short films [see video].
Both Selick and Tim Burton attended CalArts, just North of Los Angeles, a school that has a reputation for producing supremely talented animators and filmmakers. (As a point of reference, the core group of Pixar founders all attended CalArts.)
Tim Burton tapped Selick to direct The Nightmare Before Christmas, which helped him prove his value to Hollywood big wigs.
His industry career since then has been a bit of a rollercoaster, but before I go and regurgitate his IMDb bio, I’ll just say that he has a very specific visual style and artistic sensibility that he’s been developing for decades.
Neil Gaiman specifically requested Selick to be the director of Coraline, and that turned out to be a great choice.
Just to summarize the point here, Henry Selick was especially well-suited for Coraline, thanks to both his pre-existing visual style and his understanding of frightening children’s stories.
Coraline owes its tone to Selick, the character designs, the sets, and the animation.
Stop-motion is a notoriously slow and difficult animation technique. Animation itself takes much longer than shooting a live-action movie.
Maybe the team behind Coraline made the right call on every single decision because they had more time to make those decisions. Or maybe Laika (the production studio that made the movie) is just stuffed with incredibly talented filmmakers. For my money, it’s actually a combination of both.
Coraline’s music, visual presence, and sound design culminate in a tone that’s truly special. With that said, let’s draw some conclusions about Coraline’s story.
Bringin’ it All Back Home
After exploring this movie a bit more, I think people want to see it analyzed because the finished product is so good and so different that it’s easy to feel like there’s something much bigger happening here.
It’s definitely possible to interpret Coraline as an allegory, listing off every character and object one by one and assigning them meaning in some kind of meta-narrative.
(Just for fun, I tried to think of something Coraline could be an allegory for. How ’bout the death of ambition during the creative process? Ya know? At first, there’s so much enthusiasm to strike out into unknown territory, but the project becomes so abstract and strange that it’ll probably never see the light of day. The Other Mother is ambition itself: seemingly exciting and accommodating at first but steadily more threatening and malicious.)
And that can be a lot of fun.
I’m guessing attempts to analyze Coraline are really attempts to define the unique tone that makes the movie work.
For me, seeing that Coraline’s story is pretty standard in structure and approach is exciting. Because the movie is still special.
Earlier I teased an answer to the question of how artists can make something unique out of fairly traditional elements.
Here’s my answer. Feel free to disagree.
Once you’ve decided which aspect of your project is the most important to you, that’s where you can focus your creative attention. That’s the area where you can inject your personal style.
As long as the other components are solid (i.e. story structure, characters, performances), they will support your more creative, more outlandish elements.
Extremely talented artists can get to a point where every aspect of their work can be wild, crazy, and creatively innovative, but if you’re starting out, you need to give your work a foundation built from traditional techniques that have been proven to work.