ParaNorman, by Sam Fell and Chris Butler, 2012
The folks over at Laika seem poised to take over for Tim Burton as the top purveyors of macabre-stop-motion-animated-movies-for-kids-who-don't-mind-being-a-little-scared. I loved their previous effort, 2009's Coraline, but was unsure if they would be able to repeat their success without the Neil Gaiman source material and the direction by Tim Burton collaborator Henry Selick, whose modern classic, The Nightmare Before Christmas, really kick started the whole macabre-stop-motion-animated-movies-for-kids-who-don't-mind-being-a-little-scared genre in the first place.
Well, I'm pleased to report that Laika's latest film, ParaNorman, directed by Sam Fell and Chris Butler, is really good stuff. It's the story of Norman, a little boy saddled with the ability to communicate with ghosts. His family and the kids at school think he's weird, so Norman pretty much spends his time watching monster movies and talking to his dead grandmother. When the town's resident crazy man, Norman's uncle, dies and passes on his responsibilities to his nephew, Norman must now tame an ancient curse on the town of Blithe Hollow, a New England village that has a Salem-esque witch trial in its history.
ParaNorman plays the horror fairly straight. It's not too intense for older kids, but it can be quite morbid at times, even including a scene where Norman must break into his uncle's home and pry a book from the hands of his uncle's stiff corpse. There are ghosts and zombies and witches, too. The movie has its share of laughs, too, largely provided by Norman's new friend, a pudgy weird kid named Neil, but the comedy is secondary, there to lighten up a fairly dark kids story.
Though the characters are somewhat similar in design to those in Coraline, ParaNorman is drawing its look from completely different sources. Where Coraline looks heavily inspired by Eastern European animation, ParaNorman looks to have taken their aesthetic from German expressionist films and the early Universal monster movies. Lots of angles, and not a straight line in the movie, besides maybe Norman's hair, which stands straight up on his head. I also loved that all of the characters were slightly asymmetrical, with differently sized eyes, and uneven mouths and so on. In most animation, symmetry is the name of the game, so this just adds to the slightly off-kilter feel of the film, while at the same time maybe reflecting real life a little bit more as well.
Anyway, ParaNorman is worth watching, especially if you or your children are into the macabre-stop-motion-animated-movies-for-kids-who-don't-mind-being-a-little-scared genre. I think I would have really liked it as a kid, and I was (and kind of still am) a little wuss. We still have a few months to go, but it might end up being my favorite macabre-stop-motion-animated-movies-for-kids-who-don't-mind-being-a-little-scared movie of the year. I'll hold my judgment on that until I see Tim Burton's Frankenweenie, though.