Be careful what you wish for. It’s an admonition that for centuries has been dealt out by tarot reading gypsies, brewed from the breakfast silt of tea leaves, or more simply, gleaned directly from the skin of the would be Aladdin by purveyors of palmistry. For millennia it has served as a literary device: from Odysseus and the temptations of Circe, Trojan prince Paris’s catastrophic pride, down to the nightmare realisation of Victor von Frankenstein’s dream, and beyond, characters throughout history (both fictional and non) have constantly acted upon their desires with a thought only for the reward, sparing none for the consequences that their actions will bring them.
‘Be careful what you wish for’ can be found in the oldest literature right through to the most modern because it works; indeed desire is, hermeneutically, the ultimate cause to the effect of the Present: toxic was the apple for both Eve and Snow White.
‘Be careful what you wish for’ is a lesson that, if unlearned, can lead to all manner of turmoil. We are fortunate in that we are provided with endless pedagogical instruction with just this message at its heart. Most recently, there has been the stop-motion animation film, Coraline.
Adapted from Neil Gaiman’s novel of the same name by Henry Selick, Coraline is beautifully crafted: dazzling when it’s bright, eccentric when it’s odd, truly menacing when it’s scary, and absolutely charming for its entirety.
Coraline is the story of the titular character who, when the film opens, is moving with her mother and father to a new town and into a colonial style house that has been partitioned into apartments and people by eccentric tenants. It is these characters that provide a welcome and necessary comic relief that rescues the film from becoming darker than it intends to be. There is Mr. Bobinski a European gentleman putting together a jumping mouse show, and, downstairs, reside Miss Spink and Miss Forcible, two voluptuous, aged stage performers with a penchant for taxidermy. Coraline, an adventurous girl, seeks an escape from the superficial banality of her new home. Her parents, workaholic writers (something to do with horticulture journalism), provide no assistance and, as beacons in the grey fog of her parents’s doldrums Coraline’s neighbours shine, they are either past their prime (Spink and Forcible) or soon to reach it (so Mr B. assures us). And so for Coraline they are not dazzling.
In an effort to be left in peace, Coraline’s father urges her to explore their new home, named the ‘Pink Palace,’ a century-and-a-half old, to ‘count the number of windows.’ What he doesn’t count on is Coraline discovering a bricked-up, painted-over door that leads to a mirror-world tailor-made to her every desire: the dinner table is set not with the ‘grossgusting slime’ of her natural world but groans under a decadent, Epicurean weight; the weeds and mud that are the garden of the Pink Palace transform into the most exotic blooms outside the Other Palace; and, furthermore, the glory days of Coraline’s neighbours are realised, or recalled.
Also inhabiting this world are Coraline’s Other Mother and Other Father. Her is where the film really begins to blacken. Coraline is given the chance to remain in that world permanently, to live each day the life denied her in the natural world, if only she will, effectively, sell her soul (done by removing one’s eyes and replacing them with buttons as on a child’s doll). There are scenes in this the second half of the film that approach a tone almost too menacing and dark for the intended tween audience (particularly the final showdown with the Other Mother) but it is a credit to Selick and his team that they take it as far as they do: children are not coddled or shielded, here.
Ostensibly a quest story, Coraline begins her journey looking for nothing more than the alleviation of her ennui and ends it fighting for her very soul. In the second half of the movie she even sports a fedora and a leather satchel while searching for three sacred stones. (One can take the parallel further: she even shares a surname with a famous fictional archaeologist, who himself shares a first name with the film’s director.)
In Coraline Jones, the young viewers of this film (especially girls) will find a heroine with much to relate to; for other, older viewers, Coraline might be the daughter, grand-daughter, younger sister, and, in her spot-on tween mannerisms, still relatable.
‘Be careful what you wish for’ is the first half of the expression that concludes, ‘you might just get it.’ There are two reasons why you may not want a wish or a dream to come true: firstly, it may be a wish made in haste, forged in anger, a moment of vengeful longing for a lifetime of regret; and secondly, dreams and wishes are an integral thread in the weave of life; they are essential tiles in our Mosaic and their absence would be a glaring void, like a missing tooth constantly sought by the probing tongue. Dreams and wishes give us purpose, impetus, drive – without them we wither and fail. If Henry Selick and his team were wishing for nothing short of an amazing film, then I pity them (and their tongues) for the gap-toothed grin that their creation, so wonderfully realised, has left in her wake.