Coraline Is Actually a Bad Protagonist
Keep in mind that this article is about Coraline the 2009 movie, not Coraline the book. I never read the book for the specific reason that its very existence pissed me off.
The book (written by Neil Gaiman) was first published in 2002, just a couple years before I wrote a book that was just like it. I slaved over this book and was going to submit it to literary agents when I learned about Coraline and cried in a dark corner somewhere.
Coraline itself is nothing new. I mean, a girl ventures into a weird fantasy world and has to battle an evil witch to save herself, her friends, and possibly her parents? That is straight-up basic portal fantasy fiction (The Wizard of Oz, The Chronicles of Narnia, The Thief of Always, Spirited Away, The Witches -- kinda on that last one).
It shouldn't have been surprising that someone had already written what I was writing. I mean, it's been done a thousand times before. But because Neil Gaiman and I wrote our stories at the same time, I knew that getting the book published (assuming that even happened) would mean having to listen to people compare my story to Coraline and/or accuse me of copying it.
I was so annoyed that I never bothered reading Gaiman's book. But a few years later when the movie came out, I watched it, and I thought it wasn't so bad. It was nothing new, but it wasn't so bad.
I recently decided to watch the movie again to see if it held up in the eyes of my older, more cynical self, and I feel the movie has not. In fact, I came to the realization that Coraline, the movie's titular character, is actually a really bad protagonist.
Let's examine why.
Coraline Was an Obnoxious Brat
Like seriously. She was Spirited Away levels of obnoxious and whiny. Her parents were busy trying to work and pay the bills to keep a roof over her head, and her ungrateful ass did nothing but throw tantrums, complain, and annoy them while they were working. (To be fair, her mother was kind of an ass. I guess that's where Coraline gets it from.)
At the end of the film, she betrays her only friend -- the talking cat -- by hurling him at the Beldam so she can escape. The cat, this sentient being who had gone out of his way to help her, could have died because of her, and she was willing to sacrifice him because she "couldn't think of anything else."
Then she flees and doesn't fight the witch while she is distracted by the cat. Because Coraline just isn't that smart and brave, I guess.
This made her realistically flawed but also really unlikeable, to the point that you want to mute the television every time she talks or else fast-forward to a scene where she is not complaining or doing something stupid -- and those scenes were a spare few.
Coraline was Stupid
There's nothing wrong with a fictional character being stupid, but the protagonist in a story is supposed to be somewhat competent or at least possess an admirable trait that the audience aspires to.
Coraline doesn't have any admirable traits and is stupid on top of that.
Judging from a few book reviews, she is brave and smart and independent in the book, saving herself and everyone else like a true hero through her own efforts and skills.
In the movie, however, Coraline is a bumbling fool who continuously does stupid shit and would have most certainly wound up a dead ghost in the closet if not for the cast of supporting (male) characters.
After annoying her father at his computer, there's a scene where she is surprised by a bunch of bugs and tries squashing these unknown bugs with her bare hands.
I don't know a single little girl who would be slow enough to do something like this. But then, I do live in a town where black widow spiders are pretty common. Here, kids know better than to mess with bugs. But Coraline just squashes them with her bare, naked hands. Doesn't even grab a newspaper!
Earlier in the film, she is seen playing with poison oak, and is saved from continuing to do so by Wybie, a little boy who will continue to save her pathetic ass for the rest of the film.
She never figures out how to defeat the Beldam/Other Mother on her own. Instead, she relies on the continuous guidance of a talking cat and the dead children who failed before her.
While trying to hunt for the eyes of the dead children, she is so weak and helpless that when the Other Father is forced to attack her, she can't even find some way to defend herself or trick him into a trap. Instead, he sacrifices himself to help her, giving her the eye she was looking for. It's almost like Other Father went, "Here. You're so pathetic. Just take it!"
She doesn't earn the eye. The objective is handed to her by yet another pitying male figure.
The scene could have very easily played out differently, with Other Father actually trying to stop Coraline in order to preserve his own existence and her tricking him into crossing the bridge and falling through. Instead, he let himself fall through the bridge and gave her the object she was supposed to have earned through a daring feat.
After this, she purposely throws away her magic stone -- the one thing she has that can help her -- and loses it to the Other Mother, who then almost eats her.
I mean, the protagonist should lose in their story at least once because it can be a character defining moment and it also makes them realistic and relatable. But. The problem here is that Coraline lost at the pivotal moment and then proceeded to learn nothing from it. Not even how to save herself or defeat her enemy or get a grip on her own flaws.
Coraline is a Damsel in Distress
A protagonist should never be a damsel in distress in her own damned story. Not unless there's some specific reason behind it, like a humorous scene or character growth (basically, not unless it's for the same reason that male characters sometimes screw up and need help).
At the end of the film, because Coraline didn't at least try throwing some water on the Beldam, the witch's hand follows Coraline back into the real world and tries to . . . strangle her? Or something. I mean, it's just a hand. What was it really going to do?
Apparently, Book Caroline was clever enough to trick the hand into falling down the well and is revealed to be something of a water witch when the hand is trapped there. This means she conquered the Beldam -- another witch -- with her own innate powers.
I mean, think about it. Book Coraline must have had some powers if she could keep the witch's hand from escaping the water in the well after it crawled into her world from another dimension.
In the movie, however, Coraline has already been saved by Wybie a few times when he rushes in yet again to save her from the witch's hand. Afterward, she tells him she's glad that he stalks her (ugh) and then the cat appears and he is also given proper credit for saving Coraline's pathetic behind.
I'm not saying that the protagonist should never have help . . . but during the key defining moment? That's the moment the protagonist is supposed to show their wit and skill and their powers and whatever it is that makes them a protagonist worthy of being an escapist insert for the audience.
Instead of defeating her foe with her own special talents and displaying some worth as a character, Coraline relies yet again on supporting (male) characters to save her.
So basically, Coraline is an obnoxious coward who can't figure anything out on her own or do anything to help herself and must rely on men to guide her and protect her.
Yeah. That's a great message to send to little girls.
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© 2018 Ash Gray