In 2009, Laika Entertainment produced one of my favorite animated films ever, Coralinebased on the book of the same name by Neil Gaiman.
Coraline did everything an animated film should do – it was visually inventive, the characters were complicated and surprising, and you never thought “well, clearly this movie was made for kids” because it clearly wasn’t. And it was spooky. Really really spooky. From the dead, black button eyes to the eerie children’s chorus, everything about Coraline unsettled you in just the right way. Now I might not have agreed with how they chose to portray the end of the story, but the film absolutely captured the wonder and creeping unease that I felt when reading the book. Laika also had it’s hand in the production of Tim Burton’s The Corpse Bride, another stop-motion animated film that was ever-so-slightly off and had the best depiction of the afterlife I’ve seen in a while.
So it is not surprising that I was absolutely gung-ho to see Paranorman, Laika’s latest stop-motion animated film. And I enjoyed it, but not as much as I was hoping to.
The basic story: Norman is a young boy who lives in the town of Blithe Hollow. Norman loves zombies and monster flicks, and just happens to be able to see and converse with the dead. This makes him less than popular with the kids at school, his older sister, and sadly, even his parents. Norman is a loner and resigned to being one. But one day his Uncle Mr. Prenderghast shows up and tells Norman how he is the only one who can stop the Witch’s Curse and keep the dead from rising from their graves. And so Norman sets out to do just that, accompanied by his sister, his sorta friend Neil, Neil’s hunky but dimwitted brother, and the school bully.
Along the way you learn the story behind the witch’s curse and the true – and terrible – nature of humanity. This movie has some very unsettling plot twists and even though there is a happy ending, it’s not a Disney ending and you don’t walk out feeling like all is right with the world. All is OK with the world, but the possibility of it going sour again is right around the corner.
There are a lot of messages in Paranorman: be yourself, don’t be afraid to be afraid just don’t let it change you, be understanding of other people, don’t shut other people out, people can easily become monsters, don’t judge a zombie by its cover…
Sounds muddled? It was. I admire the messages and I admire the attempt to tell a very different sort of story but it all needed to be brought into a clearer focus and streamlined to give everything a bit more power. Luckily, the voice work is very well done. Kodi Smit-McPhee (Let Me In, The Road) does the voice of Norman and this kid is clearly making a career out of introspective, loner types. He brings a sadness and resignation to the character without turning him into a depressed mess. Jeff Garlin (Curb Your Enthusiasm) and Leslie Mann (The 40 Year Old Virgin, Funny People) are his parents; while Jeff Garlin can never really stop being Jeff Garlin, the conflict his character feels over his son comes across nicely. Anna Kendrick (Up in the Air) is Norman’s veeeeery teenaged sister who sadly doesn’t get a terribly complex story arc but does the best with what she’s given. Elaine Stritch has a great cameo as Norman’s ghostly grandmother – her voice was made for animated films. And continuing his quest to be one of my favorite character actors of all time, John Goodman is Uncle Mr. Prenderghast, the perfect combination of Mountain man, paranoid, and true believer.
Of course the main draw of the film is the amazing stop motion animation. Just as with Coraline, Paranorman is shot in 3-D and because these are all actual objects in real space not computer animated images (for the most part), the 3-D is worth the 3 extra bucks. Also similar to Coraline, the animators use computers to bring a depth of character and emotion to the faces of these clay, using a rapid prototyping machine that prints 3-D objects rather than paper. It allows for a real range of motion, especially with the faces. And when you’re getting a face like this:
every little detail counts from the slightly asymmetry with his nose to the broom brush hair, down to the tiny creases between his eyes. It’s a great moment that gives you insight into Norman’s frame of mind and a nod to his playfulness that perhaps isn’t being perceived as one of his main qualities. Even his parents and the rest of Blithe Hollow have a wonderful physical presence, whether it’s a father’s gut or a sister’s Juicy track suit, everything is grounded in imperfectly shaped reality.
The zombies themselves are much helped by this type of animation. Flat, animated rotting flesh is no match for rotting flesh that has heft and swing and is truly hanging off of a body. Sounds gross? It is, but without the blood and black ichor of The Walking Dead zombies.
The ghost effects are also done quite well. The dead that Norman interacts with aren’t fully corporeal but they also aren’t wholly transparent; they hover in-between the two states, the physical manifestation of their metaphysical existence.
So while Paranorman isn’t Coraline and can’t really figure out what it trying to say, it is still a very touching and gorgeous film that doesn’t talk down to children and that deserves to be seen, especially in these end of summer doldrums.
And especially if your other choice is Ice Age 4: Comedians go Jurassic.
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