It is an unexpected but welcome development that feature-length stop-motion animation has yet to be killed off by computers. Even more painstaking and time-consuming than cel animation, the process is nonetheless enjoying a renaissance in 2012: Aardman Animation put out The Pirates! A Band of Misfits in the spring, Tim Burton has Frankenweenie due out in the fall, and ParaNorman was released 17 August.
ParaNorman comes from Laika, the stop-motion studio responsible for Coraline, and like that 2009 film, it shows off the medium’s facility with hand-made creepiness, which can be traced back to Tim Burton’s Nightmare Before Christmas. In fact, ParaNorman tells the kind of story Burton might love: 11-year-old outcast Norman (voice of Kodi Smit-McPhee) can see ghosts. He sees them everywhere, and they’re more friendly than not, but his attempts to explain his abilities only confound his classmates, teachers, and family—except his grandmother, whose ghost occupies the living room couch, complaining that there’s no Canasta up in heaven.
Norman’s struggle with his abilities come to a head when his uncle, the blustery Mr. Prenderghast (John Goodman), informs him that he must use his gifts to stop the dead from rising, per a witch’s curse put on his Salem-like New England town centuries ago. Like so many independent-minded animated boys before him, Norman tries to solve the mystery on his own, but winds up entangled with a crew of mostly reluctant helpers as he races around town, trying to stop the zombies that have popped up from their graves.
Norman’s support staff consists of familiar types: Neil (Tucker Albrizzi), the round boy who tries to befriend Norman, resembles other haplessly enthusiastic fat kids (or what I call the “Rowley role,” after the best friend in the Diary of a Wimpy Kid series); Norman’s older sister Courtney (Anna Kendrick) delivers the dismissive eye rolls and sighs of so many older sisters before her; and school bully Alvin (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) brings the usual combination of aggression and stupidity. In other words, the ensemble has potential for formula. But the movie uses its animation and terrific vocal performances to make these characters idiosyncratic and endearing. The cast earns laughs through line readings rather than wisecracks, with several actors disappearing into against-type roles (Kendrick and Mintz-Plasse, for example, usually play brainier and/or nerdier types).
More subtly, the animation reflects the old squash-and-stretch principle of animation, that is, the exaggerated squashing or stretching of a figure’s movements can have comic effects. The characters here don’t always move in exaggerated ways, but they have this principle built into their designs: Neil’s roundness has a squashed look to it, contrasting with the stretch of Norman’s hair, which stands straight up; Courtney’s skinny torso and wide-set thighs squash and stretch simultaneously. The art direction works similar wonders. In a medium that often strives for the lushest mise-en-scène possible, Norman’s town of Blithe Hollow looks, in its stylized and cartoony way, somewhat real, at once sleepy, lived-in, and a little shabby, with touristy attractions that trade on its unpleasant history of persecution and bullying.
Bullying is thematically central to the screenplay by Chris Butler, who worked on Burton’s Corpse Bride as well as Coraline and makes his feature directing debut here, alongside veteran Sam Fell. It’s so central, in fact, that the script sometimes veers into speechy lessons that spell out the movie’s ideas to its younger audiences: listen to each other, be nice to one another, don’t judge each other.
But these messages are sweet-natured and sometimes more complex than you might expect. ParaNorman flirts with the familiarity of horror parody, opening with a wonderful homage to the low-budget zombie movies Norman watches on TV, with his grandmother hovering nearby. Yet it uses the genre’s obvious kid appeal not to soften horror or render it cuddly, but to twist its tropes for an impressionable audience. That is to say, the townspeople are made to look more foolish and rash than the walking dead.
When Norman uncovers the complex reasons for the witch’s curse, we see a darker, sadder side of the history of Blithe Hollow, and the film finds a new way into the well-worn horror comedy genre, rather than simply snarking in the face of supernatural danger. In treating the town’s checkered history of witch trails seriously, the movie manages to be both more and less scary than its images of decaying bodies bursting through the soil first suggest it might be.
Of course, these images do look great, and ParaNorman is a lot fun, a visual marvel and witty in an offhand way. Technological advances in animation have increased filmmakers’ ability to produce cartoons that are loud, busy, and technically dazzling assaults on all demographics. The default mode of so many non-Pixar big-studio cartoons is a kind of candy-colored clamor. At its best, this can bring to mind the energy of old Looney Tunes; at its worst, it feels like an inflated cereal commercial. In ParaNorman, the detailed effects of stop-motion inform the generous, heartfelt spirit of its characters and story.