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.