I’m willing to bet that few of you rushed out to see ParaNorman on its opening weekend as I did, but you should have. I was downright eager to see what the minds at Laika – the team that brought us Coraline a few years back – had come up with this time. So, some of you have already started to think to yourselves that ParaNorman opened two weeks ago and you’re wondering why I’m bothering with a review now. The reason is simple, the movie was so darn fantastic (in many senses of the word, well, at least two sense of the word) that I feel it is my responsibility to get the word out to all you fine readers that you should go see this movie! It is hard even to figure out where to start with the wonder that is ParaNorman, so why not start with the technical, the animation that Laika does so well. The stop-motion animation is the skeleton on which this whole movie hangs. I’ve been a fan of stop-motion animation for a long time. After all, the actors are all puppets and who doesn’t love puppets? But the flick that really made me into a bit of a stop-motion fanatic was Corpse Bride released in 2005. When I purchased the DVD, I was excited to nerd out all over the place and actually watch the “making of” vignette in the extra features. As it happens, the same company that was responsible for the animation in Corpse Bride is also the creative force behind ParaNorman. Laika, a company reconceived from Vinton Studios, has developed some really amazing technology to make stop motion puppets even more expressive. For example, this NYT article explains the use of 3D printers to create over 200,000 expressions for Coraline in the movie of the same name based on the Neil Gaiman children’s novel and animated by Laika. If you want to explore how they make Norman so expressive in ParaNorman, you can take an in-depth look at the 31,000 parts that make up his head. In a modern world where we get impatient when we have to wait for a whole minute for our computers to boot, there is something just so wonderful about a team of people so patient and creative that they can and will create a whole world for these puppets to inhabit and meticulously move those little humanoids through that world all because they know that reality just can’t measure up to the beautiful fantasy they can create. Here’s what I suggest you do, finish reading this blog of course, and then go find yourself a copy of Corpse Bride and really watch the scene where Victor first meets the Corpse Bride, Emily. Watch the way she moves, especially her veil, her train, and her hair. That’s real, it’s tangible, not CGI, not virtual reality. Some person or group of people figured out how to make her hair flow, her train and veil bounce over the ground and whip in the wind. It’s staggering and it gives me hope just to think about what creative humans can do.
Ok, so I digressed there for a moment, but back to ParaNorman. The world that team Laika has created is just so fun and full, from Norman’s carefully crafted zombie slippers to the perfectly sculpted ghost in the toilet; ParaNorman is more than just animation, it has heart. It does something that really great films do; it manages to be thoroughly entertaining and uplifting while still commenting on the human condition. ParaNorman features, as you might have guessed, a boy named Norman and he can see and speak to dead people. That’s right, he sees dead people. Okay, sure we’ve heard it before, but this movie is funnier and I think the acting is better, but maybe that’s just me. There is a reason why so many storytellers like to use monsters; they really are the perfect metaphor for human failings. Because Norman is different, he is ostracized, humiliated and bullied, even by his own father. He is a lonely little boy who tries to fit in, but just can’t do it. He is who he is and it is not in his nature to ignore the dead. He has no living friends and his only ally is his mother, but even she doesn’t believe that he can really see the dead. And so, as it goes, Norman retreats further into the world of the dead, his best friend appears to be his dead grandmother. So certainly ParaNorman is about being misunderstood and who can’t relate to that. But where do the zombies come in? Well, perhaps zombies are just misunderstood too. Literally. They speak zombie. How do we know they aren’t just asking for an aspirin for that killer headache or trying to tell you your shirt is buttoned wrong? We don’t because we don’t speak zombie, but Norman does. And so it is up to Norman to save his town, mostly from it’s own fear of the unknown.
Norman lives in a Salem, Mass-esque town called Blithe Hollow and it is a well-know and celebrated fact that the town – or more accurately several town elders – were cursed by a witch several hundred years ago. Norman, through a series of premonitions and a visit from a dead relative becomes convinced that, not only is the curse about to come to fruition, but he is the only one who can save the town and he has to do it ASAP. As it turns out, Norman does not have to go it entirely alone. Just as the world of the dead starts to turn a little creepy for Norman, he finds a friend in a living boy named Neil, who is no stranger to bullying himself. Neil not only believes Norman, he believes in him and even as Norman tries to push his new friend away, Neil steadfastly sticks it out through thick and thin and zombies.
Yes, Norman is different, but that’s what gives him the power to save his town and who can’t get behind that kind of message. But the film comments on something even more universal than that, it comments on fear and what it can make humans do to each other – and to poor zombies. So the audience learns two lessons, fear can make us do horrible things to one another and zombies aren’t so bad really. I can really get behind a story where a band of mostly unwitting “nerds” hold the fate of the town in their hands. I can also get behind a film where a wholly human puppet expresses something I think every one of us has felt at some point, that feeling of being different, alone, picked on, or scared. If ParaNorman stands for one thing it is that it is okay to be different and it is okay to be scared. It’s Norman’s weirdness that makes him great so the message is clear; when you run into the next strange or scary person, just try to remember, he might be the one to save your town from the witch’s curse so try not to be a jerk about it.