Entertainment » Movies

’ParaNorman’ :: He Sees (and Talks to) Dead People

by Sean Au
EDGE Media Network Contributor
Friday Aug 17, 2012

Stop motion animation, the illusion of motion by physically manipulating objects, dates back to the early history of cinema in the late 1800s. Yet feature-length stop motion animation only came into prominence a century later in the 90s when Henry Selick's "The Nightmare Before Christmas" and Tim Burton's "Corpse Bride" make their marks as edgier alternatives to Disney's sweet, clean-looking "Beauty and the Beast" and "Lion King." In England, animator Nick Park turned the plasticine duo of Wallace and Gromit into cult figures through a series of award-winning stop-motion short films. In 2005 his feature-length "Wallace and Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit" won the Oscar for best Animated Feature.

But it was in 2009 that stop-motion embraced the horror genre with "Coraline," the 3D adaptation of the novella by British author Neil Gaiman that was written and directed by Henry Selick (wih Gaiman's approval.) The movie was named one of the top ten films by the American Film Institute that year, received Golden Globe and Oscar nominations for Best Animated Feature, and grossed $124 million worldwide.

It has taken three years for LAIKA, the Oregon-based studio behind "Coraline," to present moviegoers with a strong follow up. It might be surprising to learn that "ParaNorman" is only LAIKA's second feature, and it is only the third stop motion feature shot in 3D (after "Coraline" and last year's "The Pirates! Band of Misfits").

"ParaNorman" tells the story of an eleven-year old boy, Norman Babcock (voiced by Kodi Smit-McPhee of "Kick Ass" and "Let Me In"), who sees dead people. His oddity makes him the target of bullies in school and earns him a plus-sized sidekick, Neil (Tucker Albrizzi). Norman is contacted by his dead uncle that he has to help appease a girl, executed a century ago for being a witch, lest her curse would bring the dead from their graves to walk the streets of the town in the form of zombies.

The film’s achievement goes beyond the technical: the supernatural story-telling echoes Japanese horror pictures with children as main characters, something rarely seen in Hollywood horror movies, which easily makes it one of the most outstanding animated features of the year. Variety’s Justin Chang praises "the latest handcrafted marvel" from LAIKA, "Few movies so taken with death have felt so rudely alive as ’ParaNorman’." Michael Phillips of the Chicago Tribune commends, "What works about ’ParaNorman’ is its subtle interweave of the stoical and the heroic." And the New York Times’ Manohla Dargis wrote the film is "a beautiful-looking, charmingly heartfelt 3-D stop-motion animation about a boy and his ghouls, (that) comes with an assortment of hair-raising frights."

The directing team behind "ParaNorman" is Sam Fell ("Flushed Away" and "The Tale of Despereaux") and first time director Chris Butler, who also wrote the screenplay. They call the film’s look a cross between the films of John Carpenter and John Hughes, and cite Steven Spielberg movies as their inspirations. It may very well be the first animated film (clearly aimed at younger audiences) with a key character that is gay (viewers will have to watch the movie till the end for the revelation). With its supernatural themes and mature sensibilities, this film might just be better enjoyed by adults than children. EDGE sits down with the directors to learn about the work that went into the three year labor of love.

A children’s movie?

EDGE: Are children the target audience for "ParaNorman?"

Sam Fell: Yes, we have got a PG rating, any children can come. It is up to the parents to decide, they can check out the trailer online. It is a fun roller coaster ride of a movie.

Chris Butler: It is always intended to include all the things I love when I was a kid. So anyone who grew up with the movies that I was watching, they are going to like it, but also it is a thrill ride for kids.

EDGE: Why zombies for a children’s movie then?

Chris Butler: A long time ago, about sixteen years ago, I just thought it would be a cool idea to do a zombie movie for kids. It was this idea of using zombies to tell a story which is important to kids. When you are eleven years old, the bully who lives down the lane, who beats you up everyday, is as frightening as a hoard of zombies, so it is that juxtaposition of a fictional movie horror and the real horror of what it is to be eleven years old.

Adult themes

EDGE: What do you want to tell with this story?

Sam Fell: Mostly, it is to take the audience for a ride and have a great time. If you come away with anything, then underneath it is how we judge a book by its cover, how we make assumptions about people just by the way they look, or situations about how they look. All the characters in the movie make misjudgments along the way.

Chris Butler: It is an action adventure. The best kind of stories are the ones that we remember. The movies that I remember from my childhood always have something to say.

EDGE: What are your influences in making this film?

Chris Butler: Pretty much every movie that was made in the 80s. Every Spielberg, such as ’E.T.’

Sam Fell: We love the ’Goonies’, ’Scooby-Doo.’ We love Steven Spielberg stuff. Director John Carpenter, his kind of horror movies, and John Hughes, like ’The Breakfast Club.’ ’Stand By Me.’ The kind of classics really.

Chris Butler: If you took the cast of ’The Breakfast Club’ and drop them into the plot of ’The Fog,’ that pretty much sums up this movie.

Surprise ending

EDGE: The horror bit of the movie, especially the story with the girl witch, is not something you would see in a typical Hollywood animation picture.

Sam Fell: Without giving away the ending of the movie, it is a surprise. We wanted to celebrate the movies that we love watching, but we also want to take the audience to somewhere new. It is important that you do not make the same movie over and over again.

Chris Butler: It is important for us to have some real emotion to it, some real heart. That is important. It is the stories that you really take with you. It makes a movie like this memorable, and hopefully, something that could be watched for years.

EDGE: You follow Norman on his journey but there is an emotional core with the girl.

Sam Fell: There is a consistent theme in the movie. Norman is the character you go on a ride with. He is an outsider. He has a very special talent. Nobody in his town or in his life really recognizes that as a talent, that is the problem. As the story unfolds, we discover he is a truly special talented kid.

Chris Butler: What makes him weird is also what makes him wonderful.

Goat hair

EDGE: What is the most challenging aspect of making this film?

Sam Fell: This is the most ambitious stop frame movie I have ever heard of. We have huge chase scenes, lots of dynamic camera work. We have an amazing epic finale where we take the audience somewhere they have never been before. We use a mixture of old technology of stop frame and also a lot of new technology to create a spectacle we have never seen before.

Chris Butler: The prolonged chase sequence in the movie is something you do not see in stop motion because physically what has to go into it. We had a piece of road that is seventy feet long and every part of that road has to be handmade and painted. It is lined with trees which are also handmade and painted. So the amount of work that goes into something so fleeting onscreen is kind of insane. That is why you do not normally see it. That was our approach to the whole movie, so it is difficult to pinpoint one thing that is the most difficult. The whole thing was difficult.

Sam Fell: We use a lot of green screen and visual effects technology. Basically, what you get in a blockbuster life action movie, the same kind of technology that goes into making something like "The Avengers."

EDGE: Tell me something that few people know about.

Sam Fell: I can tell you some facts. Norman has more than 30,000 faces

Chris Butler: Norman’s hair is made out of goat hair.

"ParaNorman" is in theatres August 17. 2012.

Watch the trailer to ParaNorman:


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