May 26, 2011 / Filmwell
Kenji Koiso has his summer vacation all planned out: he and his friend Sakuma have …
October 5, 2009
(In Part One of “Gaiman’s Girls,” Jeffrey Overstreet considered Neil Gaiman’s Coraline. In Part Two, he looks at another Gaiman fantasy with surprising correlations.)
When I became a man I put away childish things,
including the fear of childishness
and the desire to be very grown up.
– C.S. Lewis, “On Three Ways of Writing for Children” (1952)
Coraline was the first event in a year rich with memorable big-screen fantasy. A couple of months later, Pixar took us Up. In a couple of weeks, Spike Jonze and Dave Eggers will lead us to Where the Wild Things Are.
In all three of these films, adventurers step into wonderlands for the best kind of escapism: the kind in which they really escape from something bad.
For Coraline, it’s an escape from childish fantasies into a greater appreciation of her sometimes frustrating realities. For Up‘s Carl Fredrickson, it’s an escape from crippling grief and disappointment into liberating new possibilities, a meaningful relationship, and the rekindling of his dreams. For Wild Things‘ young Max, well… if Jonze sticks to Maurice Sendak’s classic story, you can anticipate that this rebellious child will learn that it costs to become king of all you survey, and that maybe his home isn’t such a bad reality after all.
It’s not a new theme. Libraries are full of variations on Alice in Wonderland and The Wizard of Oz. What’s remarkable, about Gaiman, though, is that he’s given us two of these tales — stories of troubled young girls who find wisdom in wonderland — and both of them are likely to be treasured by those who discover them.
The 2005 feature film MirrorMask slipped past most moviegoers with very little fanfare. If you missed it, seek it out and I suspect you’ll agree — it’s every bit as original and fascinating as Coraline.
MirrorMask‘s fairyland was created by David McKean, the artist and animator who illustrated Gaiman’s comic book series called The Sandman. While I love both films, I prefer Mirrormask for the hallucinatory splendour of McKean’s work. His whimsical designs of fractured characters and shifting contexts draw us into a dreamworld as original as anything we’ve seen on the big screen since The Wizard of Oz. It deserves a place alongside revolutionary fantasy films like The Dark Crystal, Brazil, and Legend, for its painterly light and its hypnotic fusion of costuming, set design, and digital animation. There’s no other movie that looks anything like it.
Coraline follows a pre-teen girl who still scowls at boys, and the heroine’s adventures feel like the fears and fantasies of a child. MirrorMask‘s Helena is a teenager eager for independence. Her bizarre odyssey has the feel of an adolescent’s confusion and curiosity, her world shifting in continuous state of flux.
It’s easy to see why Helena’s such a mess. She’s lonely. Her life’s a traveling circus — literally. Her father’s the Ringmaster and her mother’s a flamboyant performer. They drag Helena along in their escapades and expect her to jump like one of their trained animals. But when Helena’s mother collapses right after a heated argument, Helena is traumatized. Her personality splits in two.
The darker, angrier, rebellious Helena stays home and argues with dad. She dresses up like a goth, and starts to throw away the stuff of her playful imagination.
But the more she destroys her own creativity, the more she risks losing the other Helena––the curious, intuitive dreamer. That Helena gets lost in a labyrinth of her own invention, full of fractured faces and creatures made of mismatched puzzle pieces, indicative of her own jumbled psyche. (It’s appropriate that Jim Henson’s Creature Shop brings these characters to life, since the story often resembles Henson’s fantasy classic Labyrinth.)
Lost among these abstract manifestations, Helena comes face to face with a wicked witch made from all her mother’s most maddening aspects. Like Coraline, the girl must resist this misrepresentation and return to the real world with a new appreciation for her true mother. In this messy territory of adolescence, she must learn to reconcile the seemingly contradictory aspects of her world, her mother, and her own heart.
I don’t claim to fully understand the imagery in MirrorMask or Coraline. I can only testify that they mystify me in the best way.
Both have weaknesses. While Coraline‘s conclusion feels abrupt and unsatisfying, MirrorMask’s dialogue is so rife with riddles that it’s easy to lose our grasp of the central storyline. But this is quibbling. Both movies are fabulous dreams. They remind me of the best films of another great contemporary storyteller: Hayao Miyazaki. (And that’s probably not accidental, as Gaiman wrote the script for the American release of Miyazaki’s Princess Mononoke.)
In Miyazaki’s best film for young children, My Neighbor Totoro, two young girls are traumatized by their mother’s sudden illness, but find solace in the company of benevolent spirit-creatures. In his Oscar-winning feature about a girl entering adolescence, Spirited Away, the contentious heroine learns to be a still point in a storm, and her humble servitude confounds and tames the world’s greedy monsters.
So many Alices, so many wonderlands. A new variation arrives every few weeks. While these heroines learn to embrace “the real world” and leave their fantasies behind, we keep returning to wonderland, eager to be enchanted. These stories speak with mysterious relevance, ministering to needs that are difficult to diagnose. What are dreams for, if not to help us wrestle with problems and explore our questions in ways no practical language can accomplish?
Film critic Steven D. Greydanus notes that Gaiman wrote Coraline based on things he heard in the stories that his daughter Holly told back when she was only four or five years old. How can such a young girl come up with such frightening ideas on her own? Where do these horrifying visions come from? “A part of the brain that knows what it’s doing, I suspect,” he concludes.
There’s something strangely haunting about pages that explode from old dusty books and fill the air like the beating wings of doves; about those frightful vines that slither along the ground and incinerate anything they touch; about the sight of gigantic celestial beings who move and speak very slowly, and who guard precious keys to sacred mysteries. I’m certain that I have never anyone with buttons sewn over their eyes, but when I see those poor, imprisoned children in Coraline, I know I’m seeing something true.
If these dreams could be solved like a puzzle, we’d toss them aside like completed crossword puzzles. Better to explore interpretations and let the truth of their mysterious images dazzle us gradually. The real question isn’t “What are the solutions to these riddles?” The real questions are “Why are these images compelling and unsettling, if they’re ‘just childish nonsense’?”
George Macdonald once wrote, “When we understand the outside of things, we think we have them. Yet the Lord puts his things in subdefined, suggestive shapes, yielding no satisfactory meaning to the mere intellect, but unfolding themselves to the conscience and heart.” And then he wrote his fairy tales — dark, strange, poetic, and bizarre. Such confounding stories. And so beautiful. Why are they so beautiful? It’s as if these head-trips might actually have something to offer us….
I believe that anybody who disregards such stories as “escapism” fails to understand their own vocabulary. As Tolkien explained so beautifully, the fundamental assumption of someone seeking escape through fantasy is this: There is something imprisoning them, something worth escaping.
Some embrace fantasy so that they can deny their own reality and desert their lives, surrender the fight, and live in mere distraction. Fantasy becomes like hard drugs, a way to numb the pain rather than address it. But others embrace fantasy because they find, in those mysterious wonderlands, revelation that defies reduction into paraphrase — mysterious wisdom that sets them free from the confines of their misconceptions. While Gaiman does not seem inclined to consider the source of such revelation the way his predecessors C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien did, nevertheless he kindles our suspicions that there is something purposeful, meaningful, and even benevolent in the grand design of the cosmos… something that wants to save us from devils and witches and “the darker angels of our nature.”
And this takes me back to yet another tale of Alices and Wonderlands.
Remember Lucy and Susan Pevensie who wander into Narnia? Remember how the series ends — Luci is welcomed into Aslan’s kingdom, while Susan is not. Many condemn Lewis for this storytelling flourish, saying that he consigns Susan to some kind of cruel and unusual punishment for “embracing her womanhood” or something like that. They miss the point.
What was the difference between Luci and Susan? Susan, in her haste to become “grown up”, failed to understand that true maturity sustains true faith; she lost interest in mystery and wonder, and became preoccupied with herself and the superficial trappings of an incomplete adulthood. She became more interested in lipstick than fairy tales and faith. She became, if you will, her own favorite subject. Luci, by contrast, truly grew up — maintaining the faith of a child, able to believe in something greater than herself, able to live in that fragile state of humility and awe that would help her live in an ongoing state of escape… into glory.
I’m grateful for the wonderlands of Gaiman’s Coraline and MirrorMask, just as I am grateful for the stories of Miyazaki. They draw me along in Lucy’s footsteps, full of faith and hope. They return me to the worlds of my family, my community, my country, my planet, with new understandng in how to find my way through dangers and challenges. And save me from constructing some false kingdom of wish-fulfillment, and losing myself in a self-centered kingdom of lies.
(An abridged version of this essay was published first at Image journal’s Good Letters blog.)
Jeffrey Overstreet watches far too many movies, writes film reviews and two weekly columns for ChristianityTodayMovies.com, maintains the Web site LookingCloser.org, contributes to Paste Magazine, and is at work on a series of novels. He works at Seattle Pacific University.