After The Dark Knight Rises, I told myself, “That’s it for summer.” There was still another month-and-a-half of $200-300 million budget blockbusters to go, from Bourne Legacy to the Total Recall remake, and this weekend it ends with a literal bang as Expendables II rolls into theatres, just before kids return to high school or college. Even knowing this I find it hard to care. I haven’t seen these films yet, and I intend to, knowing I may well be surprised and like them; forgive me though if I’m not excited to see a movie whose main draw is it has Chuck Norris five years after Chuck Norris jokes stopped being funny.
There’s always room for surprise, though, even in the most heavily-advertised season of moviegoing. You look away long enough and something special might sneak up on you, blowing you out of the water, capturing the holy trinity of intelligence, daring, and audience empathy that characterizes the most cherished, commercially successful films.
Something special like ParaNorman.
I’d been aware of the film’s existence from Tweets and TV ads, yet somehow I missed the fact it was a summer film until the day before it came out. “It’ll hit theatres sometime near Halloween,” I said. It’d make sense, after all, a movie about a paranormal-obsessed misfit who must face a zombie threat spurred by a witch’s curse; there’s no better season than autumn, when the film seems to take place, and how many kids think of ghosts and George Romero in late August? (The awesome ones, that’s who)
It doesn’t make sense. Then again, it doesn’t have too, because ParaNorman is delightful, the best animated film this year, built from familiar story pieces but refreshing in its philosophy. It takes risks and never cops out; It’s uncompromising in a way I wish Pixar’s Brave could have been; it calls back to the past while staying relevant to today and somehow between all that maintains a timeless quality. Short word: see it. Long word…
Norman the “Freak”
ParaNorman is the second film and first original feature from Laika, the stop-motion company behind the equally delightful Coraline. Like Coraline, ParaNorman concerns a child loner with a special connection to the supernatural: he can see and talk with dead people. Named Norman and voiced by Kodi Smit-McPhee, he lives in a small New England suburb many across the country will recognize, down to the pair of shoes tied to a telephone line, although it has some quirks too. For one, every year it celebrates the hanging of a witch during the town’s Puritan days, a ritual that would cause Nathaniel Hawthorne an aneurism were he alive to see it. For two, said witch has left a curse on the town, with the promise of bringing back the dead to wreak vengeance on her persecutors. Unsurprisingly, Norman finds himself drawn into this curse and all its terrible consequences.
Although Norman is comfortable with the undead – he watches trashy zombie flicks with his deceased grandma, greets ghosts on the street, and has the Halloween theme as his ringtone – he’s not keen to demonstrate his powers. It means sticking himself in the spotlight when he already has to deal with being the “ghost boy.” His parents don’t know how to handle him – they probably didn’t even expect him (Coraline hinted at something similar in its male protagonist, Wybie, or “Wyborne”) – and his classmates bully him. It’s the age-old adolescent crisis, “Why doesn’t anyone understand me?” only it’s true and relevant to many kids Norman’s age, and ParaNorman captures that in both broad and subtle strokes. It helps that Laika eschews the Tim Burton approach and draws Norman like any other kid: he may have distinctly spiky hair, but in dress, pallor, and voice he’s another face in the crowd. It’s not him his classmates see but a projection, their own fear of the unknown.
Behind this human story, about Norman taking responsibility and teaching others, living and passed, to break their embitterment with compassion, there’s a loving B-horror aesthetic cast wide over a slew of characters molded from works by Stephen Spielberg and John Carpenter. ParaNorman is not only a story about misfits and loneliness but a trip down horror lane; it features its fair share of references, from Friday the 13th to Nosferatu, but more importantly it captures the essence of these films. The first scene recreates a typical scene from a 1960s grindhouse zombie flick, and even casual horror fans will be grinning goofily the moment it begins. It’s so perfect; the work of people who love this muck enough to satirize and elevate it to an artform.
The animators’ love allows the supporting cast to shine despite consisting largely of caricatures and stereotypes. There’s the grumpy father and concerned mother, the chatty cheerleader sister always on the phone, painting her nails, prattling about the cute jock with deltoids bigger than his brain (“I don’t take deltoids!” he says, “You can test me, these are real!”). We meet the chubby best friend, earnest, sweet, eccentric; the bully, a flask-shaped goth, perverted, self-centered, ostensibly tough though quick to scare. We’ve seen these archetypes before; they conform to the image in our head, and yet… That’s why we love them, because the filmmakers love them. They never treat these characters condescendingly but with adoration, because they’re the characters they saw in horror movies as kids. For the most part, it’s true when a writing teacher tells you, “Avoid stereotypes,” but sometimes, if you can nail that stereotype perfectly, without hatred, without belittling the character, it can be just as potent as a more “realistic” personality. Stereotypes start off with some basis in reality, after all.
In some regards, you could say ParaNorman is conventional. I don’t want to emphasize this point too much because where it turns to convention it uses it with strong intent, and when it deviates, the lack of convention – breaching it and reaching into fresh territory – sticks even harder to our memory. I can already hear some people grunting and shaking their heads. “Of course it’s conventional,” they say. “How many stop-motion films deal with loners and the supernatural?”
The answer: a hell of a lot. Nightmare Before Christmas established the medium’s appeal in illustrating freaks, ghouls, demented creepy-crawlies and all their variants, which led to James and the Giant Peach, The Corpse Bride, Coraline, and now the upcoming Frankenweenie. Even in standard CGI, horror tropes run rampant, such as in Monster House and Hotel Transylvania, and Disney’s proven time-and-again that traditional animation has its fair share of disturbing moments. If we want to just list the outcast children in film, I’d need another blog’s worth of space.
What does this prove? That there’s obviously nothing new under the sun, as the Bible and any self-respecting artist will tell you, and something about animation, especially stop-motion, lends itself to grotesque imagery. This is not a slight against ParaNorman but a justified trend, which individual films rely on for better or worse. Both of Laika’s films have been a part of this trend but they set themselves apart with excellent craftsmanship, interesting themes, and clearly-expressed artistic goals.
Why does this trend exist? Because horror comes from the unknown, the surreal, something super, para, extra-normal, so naturally film scares us by creating non-human, non-realistic spectacle. Prosthetics, costumes, CGI and other special effects have been responsible for some of horror’s most recognizable faces; stop-motion happens to be one of the oldest methods in this vein, going back to when King Kong scaled the Empire State Building, jerkily yet with convincing weight. Stop-motion taps into the primeval moviegoing experience, when projectors showed film at 16 frames per second and you could see the visual stutter. Although good stop-motion masks this process, it never hides it completely. ParaNorman has state-of-the-art animation, absolutely gorgeous, fluid, and expressive, aided by revolutionary techniques in facial animation that allow characters to convey emotion with the same energy as CGI creations, joined by “ectoplasm” effects that push the boundaries of what stop-motion allows, culminating with a crackling, electric witch ghost that wowed me as much as anything in Avatar…
Still we see the thumb prints on the characters’ faces, the subtle jerk as lips shift into a smile, the exaggerated gait of figures distinctly made from clay.
I say all this to show ParaNorman is part of a tradition and not a giant hack job against Tim Burton. Burton and Laika draw on the same iconography to serve their creative interests, but they use them in radically divergent ways. Burton’s stop-motion films (and most of his live-action work too) throw us into an inviting alter-reality of dark whimsy and consoling terror. His freaks, psychos, and monsters are the norm in each film and while the rest of the world may find them weird, they’re really no more normal; everything is painted with the same, pale color palette and dressed in gaudy, Gothic wardrobes.
Laika has taken us into such alter-realities, like the Other Parents’ house in Coraline or Norman’s hallucinatory flashbacks to 1700s New England, but it always stands opposite a real world recognizable as our own. The supernatural, no matter how menacing, seems like a nice refuge from the oppressive technology we’ve built around us in the 21st century. Cell phones figure prominently in ParaNorman as communication, resistance to communication (in the case of the sister, who motormouths through any/everybody), and at one point a flashlight, yet in each case it proves inefficient compared to real human contact. There’s a scene with a school pageant, where every parent stands blandly taping the performance with camcorders. Norman’s dad can’t get his to work: “Great!” he grumbles. “Now we can’t have this as a memory.”
Few family films have so vocally damned consumer culture and media, satirizing hip-hop, children’s TV, and suburban apathy while arguing for the most ancient form of community: storytelling, empathy, holding someone’s hand and telling them it’s okay to be angry. It’s no shock that a literal storybook holds the key to the solution, and Norman accomplishes the most not by being a zombie-slayer but a Speaker for the Dead, much like Ender Wiggins at the end of Ender’s Game.
It’s a beautiful, powerful message, and ParaNorman articulates it without confusion. Make no mistake, the film has its flaws: once the zombies appear, it conveniently forgets about the population of ghosts Norman regularly sees, even though he could ask any of them for help; some of the caricatures can get grating, like an overzealous drama teacher and sassy black police officer; and it’d have been nice to see how the town celebrates the anniversary of the witch’s death. Still, none of these flaws interfere with the film’s ambitions and final moral: it’s the people we fear that we need most, and by understanding how they feel we can overcome our deepest prejudice.
I watched ParaNorman with a mixed group of adults and children, and plenty of both loved ParaNorman and responded affectionately to it. Then there were those kids, shifty, unfocused, weaned on ADD entertainment off the Disney Channel, who blathered throughout the film and snickered at not much of anything. I’m not criticizing these children or their parents for bringing them (though they should have known when to take them out). These kids can’t help what greedy corporations force down their throats.
For those who haven’t had their attention spans mutilated, the children whose parents show them vintage Disney, Miyazaki, John Hughes, Romero, Wes Craven – great films intended for and not for kids – ParaNorman is a smart, subversively clever crowd pleaser that dares to be two steps above the usual fare. After Brave sacrificed its genius for middling serviceability, it’s refreshing to find filmmakers who refuse to compromise on what they know works. I didn’t expect it so soon, but I’m glad it came, just when summer looked to be winding down. Do yourself a favor: take your friends, family, or loved one to theatres before school starts and treat them to a summer fright with ParaNorman. It’s guaranteed more bang for your buck than The Expendables II, and it’s much, much funnier than Chuck Norris.