Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Laika Scares Up A Success With "ParaNorman"

Mix together The Sixth Sense, Scooby-Doo, and just a pinch of Six Feet Under to get Studio Laika's newest stop-motion feature, ParaNorman.  As of the beginning of this week, the film has grossed just under $36 million, earning less than the studio's premiere effort Coraline despite opening in more theaters.  This baffles me because ParaNorman is a delightful film that has a little something for everyone.

The plot is simple enough:  Norman is a boy who can see and talk to ghosts, but one day a centuries-old witch's curse brings the dead back to life and threatens to destroy Norman's town and it's up to him to set things right.  There seems to be something about stop motion films that seems to attract this simple, fairy-tale quality.  Coraline was a modern fairy-tale from the mind of Neil Gaiman, and Tim Burton's body of work also has a certain primal, back-to-basics appeal.  ParaNorman seems to recognize this and even makes it a MacGuffin of sorts in the form of a book of bedtime stories.   

There is more than a passing similarity to Scooby-Doo On Zombie Island and Scooby-Doo and the Witch's Ghost, but even if you know what is going to happen next, you'll still want to see it.  I found the climax to be incredibly well done, but the ending wraps things up in an almost too-perfect bow.  The moral of accepting yourself and others even if they're weird is not new, but the film delivers it with plenty of honesty and heart to make it feel genuine.

The gang that gathers around Norman to help him solve the mystery is where most of the humor is.  I particularly liked his chubby friend, Neil, and his soft but firm confidence. I also loved Neil's beefcake older brother Mitch because I think he is my mental idealization of Fred Jones from Scooby-Doo.  The ghosts that inhabit the town were also a lot of fun to watch, but sadly they kind of disappear once the main conflict shows up.  I really would have like to see them interact with the zombies (who were simultaneously creepy, funny, and sympathetic).

The strongest part of the movie was the design.  As I already wrote about here, Laika has developed some truly breathtaking techniques for the stop-motion medium.  At times the effects were so good that they bordered on looking like CGI, and there was plenty of that mixed in for comparison.  The visuals are creepy enough to fit the setting, but corny enough to not overwhelm the kids or people with delicate constitutions.  There are several nods to retro horror movies and comics from the 1950's and it creates the feeling that this movie could have been made just as easily back then as now.

So why hasn't everyone flocked to go see it (for the record, I think you should)?  I know we've all had a busy summer at the movies, so maybe the ticket buying audience is a bit pooped.  This past weekend was the slowest of the year at the box office.  It could also be prejudice against stop-motion.  There are probably folks out there who just think ParaNorman is the next in a long line of creepy Tim Burton puppet movies.  It's not. Laika has a voice that is unique to them, and while it may share some superficial qualities with Tim Burton's The Nightmare Before Christmas and Corpse Bride, they feel completely different once you sit down to watch them.  Save the, "Tim Burton is so old hat except for Hot Topic scene kids," for Frankenweenie in October.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

"Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, Part 1" May Show Some Promise

While all of you fine folks wait for my review of ParaNorman, here's something that touches on another of my nerd facets: comics.  Plus, it does relate to animation, so away we go!

It's been a few weeks, but Warner Home Video released their first trailer for the animated film adaptation of Frank Miller's seminal "Batman: The Dark Knight Returns."  In case you haven't seen the trailer, here it is:

It does seem to have a lot going for it.  The story seems to be pretty much intact, but certainly some of the violence (particularly the Joker's stunt of poisoning an amusement park full of kids) will almost certainly be toned down to get the PG-13 rating.  They also have Peter Weller voicing old Bats, and what's a gritty, futuristic, urban crime drama without RoboCop himself?

The art seems to work a little too hard to look like every other DC animated movie of the last few years with only some passing references to Frank Miller's original styling.  I also have general reservations about adapting a work such as this in its entirety to a film.  

TDKR came out in the 80's when writers like Frank Miller and Alan Moore were reclaiming comics from the edge of the mediocre kids'-stuff abyss.  They were dark, mature, and intense, but they were also designed to be comic books.  It's the primary reason Alan Moore throws a fit every time one of his works is made into a movie.  It is virtually impossible to properly adapt those types of graphic techniques into a linear narrative for film.  The closest they came was Watchmen a few years ago, but they still failed to capture the book's true essence.  My guess is that the pages of vox populi reactions to Batman's return will be the most telling aspect missing from this version.

Warner Home Video has been doing a pretty good job with their DC animated DVD features lately, so consider me a hopeful skeptic for this one.  An episode of The New Batman Adventures called "Legends of the Dark Knight" featured a segment taken out of TDKR and did a pretty solid job at recreating a few key scenes from the graphic novel.  We'll see if this version can do it equal justice when it comes out September 25.

Monday, August 13, 2012

"ParaNorman" Breaks New Ground in 3D Modeling

This is one of the coolest things I've seen in a long time.  Animation studio Laika is rolling out ParaNorman this Friday, and just in time for the premiere is this article in Variety about the studio's unique and groundbreaking techniques in the realm of stop-motion animation.  

While the principles of the medium have changed relatively little from the days of Claymation and Tim Burton's The Nightmare Before Christmas, one big change that made my jaw drop was this:

These are smear models (animated images used to imitate motion blur) created using a special 3D printer called a prototyping machine.  In short, hand-drawn images can be printed out into full-color models that can be placed onto the character maquettes and filmed. The final result is a range of expression that is unprecedented for the traditionally pantomimist style of stop-motion.  For comparison, on Coraline, the studio had around 200,000 different expressions for the title character, but Norman has closer to 1.5 million faces at his disposal! 

This is a great example of more traditional animation styles adapting modern technology in a way that furthers the art form without abandoning the fundamentals that make it appealing in the first place.  Just imagine what computer modeling will be like in a few years and what it will be able to do for films like this!  This is why everyone needs to go see ParaNorman after it comes out this weekend.  Seriously.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Why You Should Be Watching "Gravity Falls"

I was never a fan of the Disney Channel growing up.  It was most likely due to the fact that it didn't have cartoons that could compete with Nickelodeon or Kids' WB.  My mind has started to change now that Gravity Falls has hit the airwaves. Even though it has only been on for about a month, there is already a growing fan base on the internet.  It's good to see that the My Little Pony principle can work for other channels.

The shows follows 12 year-old twins Dipper and Mabel Pines as they spend the summer with their great uncle (or "grunkle" as they call him) in the unusual town of Gravity Falls, Oregon.  Every episode, some new bizarre creature turns up to cause mischief and it's up to Dipper and Mabel to get to the bottom of things.

The supernatural setting is nothing new, but like Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Supernatural, there is plenty of humor to level out the toned-down-for-the-kids creepy factor.  First off is the dynamic between the two main characters.  Dipper is a good straight man whose investigations usually serve as the impetus for each episode.  It sometimes feels weird hearing Jason Ritter's voice coming out of a 12 year-old, but he still manages to be entertaining and believable without becoming a cardboard cutout when compared to the wackier characters around him.  This is most noticeable around his sister, Mabel.  Always the eternal optimist, Mabel and her rainbow of baggy sweaters are always a delight to watch, and she is a pitch-perfect satire of tween culture as she looks for the boy of her dreams (and secretly hopes he's a vampire) and fantasizes about owning a man-sized hamster ball.

The writing itself is very witty and reminds me of a lot of Jay Ward's work like Rocky and Bullwinkle.  In the pilot episode for example, Mabel meets a boy who Dipper suspects may be a zombie because he's pale, quiet, and uncoordinated.  I won't ruin the twist, but the big reveal had me laughing hysterically. That's not to say however that the show doesn't have its moments of occasional and utter ridiculousness that can't help but provoke a laugh or two.

Pictured: Comedy Gold (also Red, Green, and Blue)

The character design is a bit simple and reminiscent of most of what's on TV now, but the backgrounds are great and the style fits the quirky, cerebral nature of the show. Kids will love it, and thankfully adults should too.

I never would have expected such an entertaining show to come from the House of Mouse these days, but Alex Hirsch (from The Misadventures of Flapjack and Fish Hooks) has created truly funny, creator-driven program that hopefully will stick around for a while.