In the craft of movie making, no style is as intricate as stop-motion animation. The process takes years to complete, from initial conception to painstakingly delicate design, to each tiny movement in each singular frame. Stop-motion dates back to the late 1800s, but some of the more renowned incarnations include 1977 puppet animation Oscar winner The Sand Castle, specificscenes in the Star Wars trilogy, Aardman Studios’ playful pals Wallace and Grommit, Wes Anderson’s Fantastic Mr. Fox, and Henry Sellick’s The Nightmare Before Christmas.
Sellick continued to contribute to the genre with Anderson’s The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, and then joined forces with Laika for its first feature film, Coraline. Adapted from Neil Gaiman’s horror/fantasy children’s novel, Coraline was a 3D stop-motion animation marvel, as macabre and delightfully dark as The Nightmare Before Christmas. With Coraline's success, Laika swiftly made a name for itself as the next big thing in animation. Three years later, their second feature not only meets expectations, it blows them out of the water.
From directing tag team Sam Fell (Flushed Away, The Tale of Despereaux) and Chris Butler (storyboard on Corpse Bride, Coraline), ParaNorman expands its design with loftier technique. Also horror/fantasy 3D, the film features an entire town full of scared citizens, face-melting zombies and at least seven lead characters. Each facial expression, shift in clothing, or the slightest alteration is done step by step, piece by piece. Fell and Butler create shots like a straightforward animation film, fashioning scenes much less stagnant than your usual stop motion. Everything in the film is slightly off-kilter, from characters’ features to cinematic angles to its clever plot.
The story is also much more advanced, this time an original concept from Butler. Inspired by classic monster movies, ParaNorman centers on Norman Babcock (Kodi Smit-McPhee), a young boy who can communicate with all the ghosts in his town. In a town of slobbering bullies, pointed taunts, and an oblivious family (Jeff Garlin, Leslie Mann), Norman has only his spectre companions to talk to, most notably his sassy dead grandmother (Elaine Stritch).
Tubby classmate Neill (Tucker Abruzzi) and Norman get tangled up in a bit more than they can handle when a vengeful Salem witch revives four moaning, mangled creatures from beyond the grave. Along with pasty bully Alvin (Christopher Mintz-Plasse), gum-popping, shallow sister Courtney (Anna Kendrick) and Neill’s beefy big brother Mitch (Casey Affleck), Norman finds himself scrambling to get the 17th century zombies back where they came from. Trouble is, they also have to ward off the town’s modern day witch trial.
ParaNorman finds itself in that rare niche of a children’s film that will appeal to the kids themselves as well as parents, graphic design/stop-motion/animation fans, and movie fans ripe for a whip-smart story and staggering visuals. Affection and dry humor abound, with charming voice over performances by an all-star cast. Each scene outdoes itself, from walls peeling away to Salem flashbacks to soaring, shrieking ghosts, to a startling poignant final scene. Thankfully, it also manages to avoid the saccharine sentimentality that could easily arise from a monster-movie about family and tolerance.
Laika's extensive and deeply talented team have solidified themselves as not simply a one-hit wonder. With its sharp writing and sheer spectacle of design, this imaginative, spooky treat proves that Pixar isn’t the only toon titan in town. In a year of big blockbusters, ParaNorman is a small, dark horse that may turn out to be one of the best films of 2012.