ParaNorman – Film Review

On July 24, 2012 I had the great pleasure to lead a question and answer session with directors Sam Fell and Chris Butler following the NBR screening of their new film ParaNorman. They are not kids but their youthful excitement and creative energy was a testament to the many years of dedication and love that each has devoted to the craft of animation. Before beginning the Q and A they were thrilled to hear about the advertising for the film I passed on 42nd street on the way to the theater. During our talk they discussed some of the more difficult technical achievements of making the film, were open and receptive to every question from myself and from the audience, and ultimately made everyone in the room sit up and appreciate the mystery and magic that movie making can be.

A film by Chris Butler and Sam Fell
Review by Thomas W. Campbell
Originally published on August 17, 2012 on the National Board of Review web site.

Stop-frame animation, says British director Sam Fell, is a long and complicated journey that finally pays off when life is brought to something that should not have it. Teaming with writer and co-director Chris Butler, Fell has brought energy, style and great storytelling to the screen with ParaNorman, Laika studio’s follow up to Henry Selik’s 2009 Coraline. The roots of the story go back to Butler’s childhood, in which he, like the main character in the film, was bullied by older kids. He longed for escape and finally found it in classic horror films, especially any film with zombies and other flavors of the undead. For over a decade Butler played with the premise of a boy who was “different”, mixing youthful experiences with his love of scary films before coming up with the opportunity to see his script turned into a feature length animation.ParaNorman is a wonderful mix of storytelling and technology – it has a retro feel that can be traced back to the classic animation technique of stop-frame (known as stop-motion in the U.S.) and the witty and familiar setup of the story. The story takes place in an Eastern town known as Blithe Hollow, which, like Salem, Massachusetts, has become known for infamous witch trials three centuries ago. Norman (Kodi-Smit-McPhee) is a misunderstood high school student who happens to be cursed (and blessed) with the ability to see ghosts – and the ghosts are as responsive to him as he is to them. Norman’s “difference” is established from the start.The film opens with a scene from a low-budget horror film before revealing Norman pinned in rapture in front of the television. We meet his parents, mom with an improbably large derrière and dad with a belly that gravitationally should make it impossible for him to move forward without tumbling to the floor. Both are tired of Norman’s eccentricities and just want him to be “normal”. But Norman is anything but, as we soon learn in what at first seems to be a regular stroll down the town’s main street. As the young man walks along, greeting some neighbors, being ignored by others, it is clear that he really is somewhat odd. He pauses to talk to a bit of roadkill before pressing on. Then, as he walks towards us, the camera begins a slow movement that accelerates as it swings 360 degrees around him until it lands in an over the shoulder position that finally reveals his point of view on the world. We experience life as Norman sees it – one in which the departed are sharing their “lives” in the same space as real people. And they are also sharing it with Norman – he jokes with a woman parachutist who is “just hanging around” in a tree with a broken branch through her chest, meets a peaceful hippy who must have had an overdose, and greets a tommy-gun toting gangster with cement feet. Later we will see an owl fly across screen with a six-pack plastic holder around its neck and meet a dog that has been sliced in half but still enjoys a happy jaunt around the backyard.

Three views from a display of the actual Stop-Motion puppets and sets of ParaNorman, seen at the Loews AMC on Broadway and 68th street in Manhattan during the initial release of ParaNorman.

Butler has said he was also inspired by the animated television series Scooby-Doo (Where are you?), which brought together a team of very unlikely young people to fight the ghosts and monsters of the world. For his story he wanted the “team” to make sense and for the audience to believe that they could be allies. Norman is befriended by Neil (Tucker Albrizzi), a pudgy boy who is also alone and picked on by Alvin (Christopher Mintz-Plasse), a dim-witted kid who’s sole purpose in life seems to be to make Norman’s existence an unhappy one. Meanwhile his sister Courtney (Anna Kendrick) can barely believe that she has such a brother, only acknowledging him when she meets and goes gaga over Mitch (Casey Affleck), Neil’s buff older sibling. Thrown together by the unfolding curse that hangs over the town dating back to the celebrated witch trial, this is the team that will have to learn to work together or face the wrath unleashed by the walking dead.

ParaNorman mines humor from a well-crafted script and inspired (and flawless) visual execution. Borrowing from the rich history of slapstick comedy, the filmmakers create a number of hilarious scenes worthy of Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin. One standout sequence involves the death of a strange old man named Mr. Prenderghast (John Goodman), a book that might contain the secret of preventing the plague of zombies, and Norman’s attempt to wrest it from the deceased man’s hands. In the town itself are many appropriately weird characters (an oppressive theater director who gets caught with beauty clay on her face when the zombies attack, a bizarrely overweight policewoman who just wants to kick some butt, a boy scout who transforms into a lethal zombie hunter) that ultimately create more trouble for Norman and his friends than do the zombies.
What makes ParaNorman such an interesting and entertaining film is the inspired execution of Butler’s story. Stop-motion animation is a technique that has been part of cinema since the early days of Georges Méliès and the pioneers of the art form (there is a wonderful nod to it in Scorcese’s Hugo when the boy fixes the mechanical mouse and it “comes alive”). The most famous examples are the original King Kong (1931), all of Ray Harryhausen’s work (i.e. 1958’s 7th Voyage of Sinbad), and in the modern era the work of Aardman studios (2005’s Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit) and the films of Tim Burton and Henry Selik (for instance 1993’s The Nightmare before Christmas). Butler worked for Laika productions as storyboard supervisor on Coraline (and a storyboard artist on Tim Burton’s 2005 Corpse Bride) and Fell co-directed the CG animated Tale of Desperaux (2008). Fell and Butler have fully harnessed the immense resources available through Laika studios (a CG and stop-motion animation company based in Oregon founded by lead animator and CEO Travis Knight) and built upon the accomplishments of Coraline, which was the first and largest 3D stop-motion feature in cinema history. Stop-motion is a painstaking process that requires the creation of complete locations, individual characters, precise and carefully designed lighting, and the frame by frame recording of every action that is shown on screen. For ParaNorman the filmmakers created dozens of stages that were often shooting simultaneously, with everything scaled to precise proportions (Norman, for instance, stands about 12 inches tall).

Since Coraline, Laika has implemented a number of technical advancements to help the animators bring Norman’s world to life. The film was shot on a Canon 5D Mark II still camera, which shoots one “eye” then shifts the lens to shoot the second “eye”, allowing the editors to combine the images into 3D once they have been captured to the computer. But the biggest leap in technology was the use of digital printers – it is the first time that the technique has been used to fully support a feature film. Essentially it allowed for the filmmakers to design and create the elements that make up each character in an advanced software program and then to literally print, in three dimensions, the pieces that would then be assembled. This proved especially valuable for all of the elements that need to be continuously replaced to create the illusion of movement – for instance the eyes, the mouth, and eyebrows. Each character had hundreds of mouth elements that were replaced over time. The printer was also able to output objects in accurate color, saving time and guaranteeing a consistent look and quality. This gave the animators a deep and valuable resource to work with and it all shows up on screen. The characters seem to really come alive, not only in the ways that they walk and move their bodies, but most tellingly in the way that their facial movements such as eyebrows, eyes, and mouths seem natural and individualistic.

ParaNorman is a film that will engage kids, young adults and adults who deep inside want to rediscover what it was like when they were young and dreamed of zombies and saving the world. It is state-of-the-art 3D animation with bullies, monsters, heroes, and a winning sense of humor.

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