This year saw the release of no fewer than three Halloween-ready animated features from three different animation houses, and Laika’s stop-motion cartoon ParaNorman was arguably the lowest profile, lacking a boldface voice actor like Hotel Transylvania‘s Adam Sandler or a brand-name director like Frankenweenie‘s Tim Burton. But ParaNorman is the best of this lot, and one of the very best animated features of the year—a worthy successor to Laika’s Coraline (2009). A Blu-ray release offers the opportunity for this movie to reach a wider audience.
Set in the New England composite town of Blithe Hollow, ParaNorman follows a few days in the life of Norman Babcock (voice of Kodi Smit-McPhee), a kid with the striking ability to see ghosts of the deceased and alienating inability to convince anyone that he’s telling the truth about his powers. When the town is threatened by a major supernatural threat, it’s up to Norman and a ragtag group… well, you know how these things work, especially if you’ve seen ‘80s kid-adventure pictures from Amblin Entertainment, or the rash of nostalgia movies that have sought to recreate that feel in recent years.
In the commentary track, directors Sam Fell and Chris Butler do mention that they intended the introduction to Norman’s family—his frustrated father (Jeff Garlin), sweeter mother (Leslie Mann), and bratty older sister (Anna Kendrick)—to have a Spielbergian flair, and it does have that messy, funny, slightly angsty dynamic (also imitated to great effect in Super 8). But the homage doesn’t feel explicit or overdeliberate; the movie’s style is not particularly Spielbergian, nor does it knock off Tim Burton, who would seem like an obvious reference point as the man who took Spielberg’s oddball suburbs and crafted even more imaginative variations.
Instead, filmmakers Butler and Fell, along with the rest of the Laika team, build their own world, the subtle details of which enhance the whole film. The Blu-ray includes a comprehensive catalogue of featurettes explaining the painstaking nature of, say, the film’s production design, based on the “warped doorframes and sagging eves” of New England. The filmmakers reveal that between the intentionally uneven sets and the stop-motion puppets based on “messy, unhinged” character designs, the film contains no straight horizontal or vertical lines—everything is slanted, bent, or curved.
This controlled messiness lends ParaNorman a handmade quality, even when the movie indulges in sophisticated technical tricks (the disc even includes a piece on the digitally erasable rigs that hold up puppets when they need to float, jump, or fly). Blithe Hollow is creakier and more autumnal than the lush, often candy-colored environments of digital animation; indeed, while Coraline had a wintry palette, ParaNorman is very much a fall-hued movie (naturally, then, it was released in August, even when any time between Labor Day and Thanksgiving might have made more sense).
ParaNorman is also informed by a sense of autobiography: On the disc, co-director and writer Butler admits that the character is more or less a version of himself as a kid, down to Norman’s closeness with his grandmother (who has already departed when the film begins, but speaks to him as a ghost). A sense of humanity informs the other characters, too: Norman’s eager, roly-poly sorta-friend Neil (Tucker Albrizzi), Neil’s dim older brother Mitch (Casey Affleck), and even the bully Alvin (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) feel like real people (albeit with cartoonish proportions), not yapping shtick generators. That Spielberg-indebted opening means the movie has what the directors admit is a slower start than usual for an animated film; it also gives the movie plenty of breathing room to strike a tone that doesn’t aim for realistic, Fell and Butler say, but naturalistic.
This may sound like flat-out ParaNorman promotion (it also makes a great holiday gift, I assume!); neither the film nor its home video incarnation are absolutely perfect (though it does benefit from the clarity of high definition). Though the movie has an unexpected and surprisingly nuanced anti-bullying message, the screenplay does explain that message a little too readily. And while most of the behind-the-scenes materials will interest most animation fans, a sense of biography becomes less fruitful in “Have You Ever Seen a Ghost?” which takes sort of a Celebrity Ghost Stories approach to the film’s cast and crew, asking them to elaborate on supernaturally tinged encounters. But these are minor problems with a smart, delightful film in a worthy Blu-ray package.
ParaNorman may not have become a smash this year, but there’s always next Halloween-to-Thanksgiving corridor, and hopefully many more after that.