Warning: Spoilers ahead for Coraline.
Recently, I decided to watch Coraline for the first time. Considering I’m some eight years late, you may be able to guess that I am not particularly the type of person who watches movies often. This is due to the fact that I am pretty picky with movies. I’m in no way an expert on them, of course, and I’ve liked plenty of “bad” movies. However, 90% of movies I watch don’t really do anything for me. Sadly, this movie was no exception. That being said, I know this is a pretty beloved movie, so please understand what I’m about to say is just my opinion. If you love the movie, that’s fantastic, and I hope you’ll continue to support it. For me, however, the movie had many flaws, the primary flaw being the protagonist herself. So, without further ado, let’s jump into my analysis of why Coraline is a terribly written protagonist.
Before I delve into that, let me just state the movie does have good points. The visuals were fantastic, especially given the medium the movie was created in. I can also appreciate its production value, since getting a lot of the subtle parts of the animation would’ve taken great pains and a keen eye. I also have no doubts in the creativity of the world and have seen plenty of people have lengthy theory videos on aspects of the movie. So in this department, the movie is fantastic.
However, where the movie falls apart for me is the story. In particular, I found Coraline to be a terrible protagonist.
First, one must understand what composes a good protagonist. In my opinion, a good protagonist is, in general, likeable. They are someone the reader can connect with on an emotional level, making the emotional moments of scenes more impactful. While the protagonist can be a hero, anti-hero, or villain, they always possess certain positive traits. This can be anywhere from being a good person who gives to others, to a villain who in their evilness has charm and passion for whatever their cause may be. Of course, said protagonist must also have flaws, such as having a mean streak, being clumsy, etc.. Yet, to have a truly good protagonist, these positive traits and negative traits must be held in a balance, cause too much of either one tips the scale in a bad direction.
Unfortunately, Coraline fails this definition from the get-go. In other words, she is an extremely unlikeable character, mostly due to the fact she has far more negative traits than positive.
Throughout the movie, Coraline is, frankly, just a brat. She gets upset about her parents having to work and do other tasks right after moving into a new home. She gets upset she didn’t get the gloves she wanted, because her parents needed to get her school clothes. She gets upset with her weird neighbor, Wybourne, at the flip of a dime. I could go on and on, but at the end, Coraline is not the nicest person to put it lightly. Now, of course, it is in the spirit of children to be brats on occasion. However, unlike other kids who have brief moments of sweetness, Coraline does not receive this until the last few minutes of the movie (which is an issue I’ll go into a moment).
At this point, I can hear the angry typing of fans that are going, “But she’s a brat, because her parents are so neglectful!” There is a huge problem in how this is presented however. Had the movie begun focused on the family and established at the start they were neglectful, then yes, that would’ve been a more compelling argument. The movie doesn’t particularly focus on that at the start. Rather, the focus is on Coraline and her eventual encounter with Wybourne, whom she is fairly verbally abusive towards even in excess for his weirdness. Since it is Coraline’s brat-like nature that is better established first, her parents’ subsequent neglect winds up feeling more sympathetic. It is no longer the situation of a girl not receiving her parent’s attention and thus acts out to get it; it is the situation of a brat who demands her parent’s attention 24/7, when her parents are trying to work and provide for her. In the end, while the parents do have issues, Coraline’s personality is presented as a separate entity from that. This disassociation makes the neglect feel irrelevant, since for all intents and purposes it seems like Coraline would be a brat without it.
Of a last mention to put a nail in the coffin, Coraline’s positive trait is ruined at the end by her brat nature once again. Towards the end of the movie, as Coraline faces off against The Beldam, we start to see hope for the character. She is displaying a lot of courage to save her family, and her character might be redeemed through the act. However, let’s examine how she eventually escapes The Beldam. Throughout the movie Coraline has the help of the Cat, whom even at the end voluntarily saved her from doom by retrieving one of the ghost children’s souls for her. How does Coraline repay this act? She throws the Cat at The Beldam’s face, risking the Cats life. Of course, Coraline, as a typical badly written protagonist, receives no consequences for this. A quick apology to the Cat later solves all her problems. At the end, no matter how much courage she had, this moment vastly colors her actions with selfishness. All that mattered to Coraline was escaping with those she set out to save, with little regard to those she hurts on the way. Thus, at the end when Coraline acts sweeter to her eccentric neighbors, the moment doesn’t feel earned at all. Rather, it feels like a shallow, forced façade to cover the fact that Coraline is still, at the heart, a selfish brat.
In summary, Coraline is a terrible protagonist because she has nothing but negative traits. She’s selfish, unkind, bratty, and is only courageous to get the things she wants. The only time she acts sweet is after she receives the things she wants, and her problems are often solved by quick, shallow apologies. In the end, not only does this vastly ruin the message of the film about appreciating what you already have, but it also makes the story an unenjoyable experience. The eccentric neighbors, the weight of the conflicts, and everything about it is lost because there is no desire to see this character succeed. It’s also hard to empathize with Coraline’s emotions on any level either, ruining each scene’s impact.
Though the story has plenty of other problems in it (like the other characters being flat in general), Coraline is by far my least favorite part about it. The movie has its merits, but I do not think this is one of them. If you like Coraline as a protagonist and could connect with her, then there’s nothing wrong with that. Keep in mind, also, that I can only evaluate the movie. I’ve never read the book it was based off of, so I cannot speak for how she was written in it.
Regardless, my feelings about the movie still stand. I hope my analysis has taught something about the dangers of writing a kid too bratty and how some people react to that. It is a risky route to take, and I wish this movie had made many different choices. So, whether you liked the movie or not, I feel it’s something to consider if the movie inspired you to create stories.
Coraline is © to Henry Selick, Laika Pandemonium, Focus Features, and all other affiliated parties.
Image 1: Cover image for one of the DVDs.