Stories that follow the traditional “hero’s journey” template are often geared toward adolescent boys, and feature easily identifiable male characters in the lead role. Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, and countless other properties can be placed into this rather broad category, and they all tend to reinforce the notion of the young male protagonist as champion or hero. Thus, it always feels somewhat refreshing when a story featuring a strong female lead comes along, even though it is not nearly as much of a novelty as it often appears to be. This installment of Cinematic Soulmates focuses on three films that break this male-centric mold, and examines the links that exist between Spirited Away (2001), Pan’s Labyrinth (2006), and Coraline (2009).
In Spirited Away, director Hayao Miyazaki introduces audiences to Chihiro, a sullen 10 year old girl who takes everything for granted, including her somewhat clueless parents. On the way to their new house in the suburbs, the family takes a detour through the woods, and they end up bumbling into the spirit world. Within minutes of their arrival, Chihiro’s parents have been turned into pigs, and Chihiro finds herself in the clutches of the cruel Yubaba, a witch who steals people’s names and forces them to work in her bathhouse. During this time, Chihiro befriends a number of other bathhouse employees (including Haku, an enigmatic older boy who can turn into a dragon), and has a series of amazing adventures. Ultimately, though, Chihiro knows she does not belong in this world, and she wants nothing more than to rescue her parents and return home. Now Chihiro must rely on skills she never knew she had in order to best the devious Yubaba, restore her parents to normal, and find the way back to the real world.
Similar to Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland (and the other two films in this article), Spirited Away tells the story of a young girl’s transition from childhood to adulthood. After passing through a somewhat vaginal tunnel (which is similar to the portal to the Other World in Coraline, or the tree in Pan’s Labyrinth), Chihiro is in a sense reborn in the spirit world, a place that is completely separated from everything she has ever known or loved. During her time in this fantastic realm, she must put away her childish notions about life, and accept responsibility. Even though she remains 10 years old throughout the film, Chihiro is forced to grow up quickly. She suddenly finds that she is responsible for the well-being of others, specifically her parents, who are no longer capable of taking care of themselves (this could almost be seen as a comment on the way that parent/child roles are reversed over time due to the ravages of aging). She is also forced to care for No-Face, Haku, and others at various points throughout the film, and takes on a sort of mother role herself, marking another transition between being a child and becoming an adult. There is also a struggle between Chihiro and Yubaba, who ostensibly takes on the role of a surrogate mother, albeit an uncaring one. As Chihiro grows, she becomes more rebellious, chafing against the rules laid down by Yubaba. This is another sign of encroaching adulthood, and will no doubt be relatable to viewers of either sex. Adding to the tension is the fact that Chihiro’s guide into adulthood is a young boy. Haku is the one who teaches Chihiro all about this strange new world in which she finds herself, and eventually becomes something of a love interest for the confused young girl, albeit a chaste and somewhat platonic one. Eventually, Chihiro does find her way home, but as she looks back over her shoulder at the tunnel leading to the spirit world, it is obvious that this little glimpse into adulthood has changed her.
With Pan’s Labyrinth, director Guillermo Del Toro explores similar thematic ground, but his focus is more on the way that childhood fantasy and wonder contrast with the often harsh realities of adulthood. The film opens with an unseen narrator spinning a fantastic yarn about a young princess who ran away from her father’s magical realm hundreds of years ago, and has been stuck in the real world ever since. From there, the film cuts to Spain in 1944, and we are introduced to Ofelia (Ivana Baquero), a young girl traveling to the country with her pregnant mother (Ariadna Gil). They are going to live with Ofelia’s new stepfather, Captain Vidal (Sergi López), a ruthless and sadistic soldier in Franco’s army. When she arrives, Ofelia discovers a strange maze in the woods behind Vidal’s camp, and when she explores it later that night, she meets a mythical faun (Doug Jones). He tells her that she is the princess mentioned earlier in the film, and now she must complete three tasks before the next full moon, or she’ll be trapped in the real world, and forced to live the rest of her short life in the body of a mortal. Now Ofelia must complete these tasks and return home, all while battling horrifying monsters and unimaginable evils, including her vicious stepfather.
Like Chihiro, Ofelia discovers a magical and marvelous world that exists alongside her own. Unlike Chihiro, however, this world does not hold the promise of adulthood, but of eternal childhood wonder. It is the real world that forces Ofelia to grow up too quickly, and it is only by escaping into this fantasy realm that she will be allowed to remain a child for the rest of eternity. In the real world, Ofelia must care for her mother, who is dealing with a difficult and ultimately fatal pregnancy. By extension, she must also look after her unborn brother, who later becomes her burden to bear after he is born, and Ofelia attempts to liberate him from the care of her wicked stepfather. Thus, Ofelia is forced to accept a mother role in the real world, and it is only by escaping into the fantastical realm that she is able to maintain her childhood innocence. In fact, Ofelia’s mother role is somewhat literalized during a scene in which she brings to life a magical mandrake root, which looks and sounds exactly like a newborn baby. It is a beautiful scene, and one that really drives the point home. Aside from this pervasive theme of motherhood, there are a number of other themes that unite these films. Similar to Haku in Spirited Away, Ofelia’s guide through her journey is male, embodied here by the mysterious faun, and once again, he is a vague and unknowable creature who nonetheless holds some attraction for the heroine. There is also a surrogate mother figure in the film, the kind-hearted rebel Mercedes, played by Maribel Verdú. Unlike Yubaba, however, she is loving and caring, and tends to indulge Ofelia’s childish notions. While the ending of the film could be considered tragic (especially if you ignore the evidence that points to the fantasy realm being real), the smile on Ofelia’s face tells the audience that she has ended up exactly where she wants to be, and that she is ecstatic that she is able to hold on to her childlike sense of wonder.
While director Henry Selick’s Coraline continues the themes that run through both of the previous films, it generally has more in common with Spirited Away than Pan’s Labyrinth. Like Chihiro, Coraline Jones (Dakota Fanning) is a sullen young girl forced to move to a new house with her somewhat distant parents. When they arrive at the new house, Coraline discovers a portal to another world, where she is greeted by her Other Mother (Teri Hatcher). Coraline quickly falls in love with the Other World, which is more interesting and colorful than the boring old real world, but it quickly becomes apparent that there is something not quite right about it. It’s not long before the Other Mother reveals her sinister side, and Coraline learns the terrifying truth behind the Other World. Now she must use her keen mind to rescue her parents, and get them all back to the real world safely. Unfortunately, the Other Mother doesn’t know when to quit, and she’s not about to let Coraline go without a fight.
Much like Chihiro, Coraline travels to the Other World through another obviously vaginal tunnel, but similar to the fantasy realm Ofelia travels to, this world holds the promise of eternal childhood, with its magical flowers, stupendous jumping mice carnival and the outrageous theater owned by the youthful actresses, Miriam Forcible (Dawn French) and April Spink (Jennifer Saunders). However, it’s not long before Coraline must take on the role of mother, and quickly finds herself caring for the well-being of the three ghost children who reveal to her the dark secret of the Other World. She must also care for herself, as her parents have been kidnapped by the Other Mother, and now Coraline must accept the responsibility of finding them. Thankfully, Coraline does not have to face this challenge alone. Much like Chihiro and Ofelia, she has a male guide in the form of an aloof and wisecracking cat with a deep voice. He helps Coraline often, even going so far as to complete one of her tasks for her, but he is nonetheless mysterious and cagey, and, like Haku and the faun, he appears to have his own agenda and motives which he keeps close to his chest. As is the case with the other girls, Coraline’s adventure is more than just a journey into a fantastic realm full of magic and wonder. It is a journey between two states of being, and while she emerges still a child, she has nonetheless grown up just a bit.
Laurel Thatcher Ulrich once said, “Well-behaved women rarely make history,” and each of the girls in these three films embodies this notion. There is a sense that each film is suggesting that women should not simply be subservient, but that they must often rebel against authority. In Coraline and Spirited Away, Coraline and Chihiro are rebelling against their alternate mother figures, and in Pan’s Labyrinth, Ofelia is rebelling against figures of male authority (in her case, she is rebelling against both Captain Vidal and the faun). More than that, however, these three characters are rebelling against the very idea that a traditional hero must be an identifiable young male figure. While this isn’t the most shocking idea to some, it’s still nice to have an occasional reminder every now and then, and these three films serve that purpose quite well.