A misunderstood boy who can speak with the dead, takes on ghosts, zombies and grown-ups to save his town from a centuries-old curse.
Conceptually, it’s not a stretch to want to echo a well-worn line from M. Night Shyamalan‘s The Six Sense – “I see dead people” – when talking about Focus Features‘ forthcoming 3D stop-motion animated film PARANORMAN, since they both center around a young boy with the ability to communicate with the dead. But that’s where the similarities end. The titular Norman Babcock, played to perfection by Kodi Smit-McPhee (Let Me In / The Road), is more of a modern-day Paul Revere with his premonitions that the dead will soon rise and take over his hometown of Blithe Hollow, his “The dead are coming!” cries falling on deaf ears.
Norman suffers from the typical trepidations of being an 11-year old middle-schooler – he’s bullied by his classmates (“Ab-Norman”), misunderstood at home, and yearns for a normal existence, whatever that is. Aside from having frequent philosophical conversations with his grandmother, who (you guessed it) is dead, he’s your average middle-class New England adolescent. As we quickly find out, Norman must save Blithe Hollow from a 300-year old witch’s curse after he’s tipped off by his recently deceased uncle Prenderghast (John Goodman), who until now has been the silent sentinel keeping the dead from rising up and overtaking their streets. Now Norman must become the town’s unwitting savior.
The good residents of Blithe Hollow have ripped a page from the enigmatic Roswell (the UFO capital of the world) and created a “supernatural” souvenir cottage industry of their own based on the inquisition-style witch trials that took place there centuries before. After the curse is actually triggered and the town becomes awash in ghouls and zombies, the townspeople initially run for their lives and ultimately end up blaming Norman for their troubles, pitchforks and all, opening up another can of prepubescent angst for the outcast.
Billed as an animated comedy, this visually-striking film is deftly directed by the British team of Chris Butler and Sam Fell, who manage to provide a parable that functions on many levels without becoming overlapping to the point of confusion, which often happens in films of this type. Thanks to the magical hand of lead animator/producer Travis Knight, the visuals are nothing short of stunning.
“Animation is a medium, not a genre,” says Knight. “Genre is a limiting term, hamstringing creative possibilities, but animation is a powerful visual medium restrained only by the imaginations of its practitioners.”
Paranorman is steady and confident filmmaking, for sure. The production’s technical machinations don’t ever get in the way of the storytelling and the 3D is used only as a tool to enhance the environments in which the characters live, not in that jarring, in-your-face spear-chucking kind of way. Much like the flawless animation, the application of the 3D is silky smooth throughout. At times it becomes even hard to fathom that it is indeed created one frame at a time, multiplied by the dozens, if not hundreds of moves and tweaks that must be undertaken in between each one – a good indicator why the production took 2 years to complete (on top of the 10 years Chris Butler toiled to get the film made).
My ten-year son, Ethan, accompanied me to the press screening last month and I could tell from his facial expressions and grin-filled sideway glances that he was really enjoying the film. Plus, his sarcastic trademark remark – “lame” – never reared its head during the screening. And, as you can imagine, that’s a good thing. But it did surface in regard to one aspect of the story when I asked for his opinion of the film later that weekend (read his insightful thoughts below to see why).
If you haven’t figured it out yet, the film’s principal target audience is the Tween market, who seem to have their hands perpetually dipped into their parent’s wallets (and the parents and family members who would accompany them). And indeed Paranorman is an entertaining movie that will be enjoyed by most as a family unit.
Although the film has an MPAA PG rating for “scary action and images, thematic elements, some rude humor and language,” I never found myself cringing or regretting that I’d brought my child to see it. Overall, Paranorman is not as scary, offbeat, or dark as Coraline. A great deal of the action here happens in the open and is given equal parts levity. In fact, I was delighted to continue to share my nostalgic love of stop-motion animation with him, which began when I took him to see Coraline (now one of his favorite DVDs), and for me as a child with Harryhausen‘s Jason and the Argonauts, the made-for-TV special Santa Claus is Coming to Town, and Mad Monster Party. I still remember the magic I felt watching those films when I was his age and I’m glad he’s been afforded the opportunity to experience it, too.
Butler reflects, “Amblin [-produced] movies from the ‘80s, like The Goonies, had spark, warmth, and affection – and they didn’t condescend to kids. In this fun rollercoaster ride, there would also be what kids contend with on a daily basis in the real world – fitting in, facing bullying – as well as something they don’t usually face; a zombie invasion.”
What some parents might find more horrifying – whether they articulate it or not – is that the film’s helmers purposely allowed a level of real life grunge to seep in. The kinds of things society likes to sweep under the rug or white-wash in convenient red herring morality (sitcoms & children’s programming alike), like the issue of dysfunctional families, bullying (thank goodness that one is starting to be debated), or gender identity. It’s all done subtly, however. And if you look closely at the lusciously detailed backgrounds, even Blithe Hollow itself suffers from a bit of civic neglect, purpose-built that way say the filmmakers as a way to ground an extraordinarily fantastical film in a bit of reality. “A little mud never hurt anyone,” they say. And that mix is precisely why this film feels genuine on one level, and entertaining on another.
The supporting ensemble cast is excellent in each of their respective roles. The producers share that each of the actors cast were chosen more for how their voices sounded like their characters would look, rather than how they looked. Norman’s flustered father Perry is played by Jeff Garlin; his spacey mother Sandra is Leslie Mann; and his deeply superficial older sister Courtney is Anna Kendrick; Norman’s middle school bully is personified by Christopher Mintz-Plasse, while his impressionable confidant and only true friend Neil (my personal favorite) is donned by Tucker Albrizzi; Elaine Stritch is his spectral grandmother. Alex Borsteinrounds out the principal team as Norman’s blowhard teacher Mrs. Henscher.
Paranorman is the first of three horror-themed 3D animated films that are scheduled to be released this year using the arduously painstaking and detailed “handmade” craft of stop-motion. The other two films are Genndy Tartakovsky‘s HOTEL TRANSYLVANIA (September 28th) and Tim Burton‘s FRANKENWEENIE (October 5th).
Pixar may have dazzled us first with their distinct brand of computer generated animation with such memorable film as Toy Story (1995), but the Oregon-based LAIKA (makers of Coraline) have found their own niche in a technique they call “replacement animation” that makes use of an advanced version of a process called ‘Rapid Prototyping (RP),’ which is similar to ink-jet printing except that the object is built up into a three dimensional form using a UV-sensitive liquid resin (a kind of super-glue). In RP a nozzle sprays the polymer layer by layer until the object is formed. This process is the reverse of traditional subtractive machining techniques where the material is removed to reveal the object.
This process allowed the animators to make hundreds of face plates that could be removed and replaced with varying degrees of expressive subtlety. The pieces begin their journey as 2D computer concept art and end up being realized on 3D printers. In the end, LAIKA has combined the time-tested traditional methods of stop-motion and combined it with the latest state-of-the-art molding technology. The result is jaw-dropping, fluid animation.
The viral marketing and publicity campaign for the film has been rather impressive, too. Everything from the film’s trailers (below) to the stand-alone educational featurettes that illustrate the process of stop-motion in layman’s terms, have been first rate value-added content. One of my personal favorites was a short but clever spot called “Nailed It” that was timed to coincide with the recent 2012 Summer Olympics. Their movie tie-ins have also been innately on point. Read our review of the free and fully featured game app LAIKA released recently to rave reviews – 2 BIT BUB. All of this together has gone a long way towards endearing the public’s anticipation for the film as well helping to bring the art form to the attention of a new generation.
Make sure to visit http://weirdwins.com, an off-shoot portal that chronicles the trials and tribulations of the filmmakers and animators over the course of production that’s an intriguing behind-the-scenes journal with plenty of extra content.
We recommend experiencing PARANORMAN on the big screen and adding it to your home collection (next to your copy of Coraline) when it hits on DVD/Bluray later in the year.
FROM THE MOUTH OF BABES – THE KID’S POV: ‘PARANORMAN’
By Ethan J. Pagán
Since I had already seen Coraline I had a feeling I might like Paranorman, too. I’ve seen lots of zombies in many movies before so they weren’t too scary, but they were really cool. They might be scary for younger kids. The 3D was good, everything looked like it was real and you could touch it (with the 3D glasses).
The only thing that bothered me about the story was that the people who killed the girl in the past and came back as zombies had done a bad thing and got away with it. She became evil and was made the bad person in the movie. I thought that part was lame.
Also, I played the 2 BIT BUB game from the movie and it rocks. Lots of levels, and lots of prizes to collect.
The film is exciting and a lot of fun to watch. Take your parents to see it! – Ethan J. Pagán