Sean K. Cureton

Henry Selick’s Studio Laika Proves to be a Worthy Adversary for Pixar

In Movie Reviews: 2012 on September 6, 2012 at 11:19 am

Theatrical Poster


ParaNorman
Directed by Chris Butler and Sam Fell
3 ½ out of 4 stars

The year 2012 has been unusually barren of any genuinely interesting animated feature films. While it was nice to see another movie produced by Studio Ghibli (The Secret World of Arrietty), and even though Pixar is a powerhouse when it comes to churning out family movies featuring computer generated characters that seem to be designed specifically to please (as was certainly the case with this summer’s Brave), both of these major animation studios seemed to underwhelm their already established and devoted audiences rather than exceeding and breaking the expectations of their respective fan bases. Arrietty was rather bland and only mimicked the talents of Studio Ghibli’s creative mastermind Hayao Miyazaki. Comparatively, Pixar’s Brave was interesting enough in its promise of a mythic fantasy setting, yet it’s characters seemed so clichéd and its feminist agenda was so painfully blatant that this reviewer decided not to go and see it at all. It is therefore unexpected and surprising to find that the late summer release of ParaNorman, distributed and produced by director Henry Selick’s (Coraline) animation studio Laika, is a brilliant and intensely moving animated film which seems to take a lot of inspiration and aesthetic pointers from Selick himself.

ParaNorman takes place in a small town that is haunted by a witch’s curse, which must be stopped every year by the one person living in the town with the ability to see and converse with the dead. Of course this individual is Norman, whose name makes up part of the film’s title, and much of the film consists of Norman coming to terms with his power, discovering the consequences of wielding said power, and dealing with being different from those around him.

At first glance, ParaNorman seems like a predictable film that has already been done dozens of times before. Who hasn’t already seen a children’s film about a protagonist being labeled as different from his peers, and then having to deal with this alien status or else risk being alone for the rest of their lives? I think I could name at least ten right off the top of my head if I were to take the time to do so, but none of the films that I would be able to mention would be able to compare to ParaNorman in anyway, since directors Chris Butler and Sam Fell have delivered a film that is so heartfelt and understated in its admittedly clichéd message that their film ends up being one of the best animated feature films to come out in years.

Possibly what makes ParaNorman so brilliant is the basic character models that the film uses, which are immediately recognizable as anyone’s grandmother, father, older sister, or school yard bully. While some stop motion films’ character models can seem almost obscene or disturbing at times (as was the case in certain points within Coraline), ParaNorman’s character models seem to be right on point, and exaggerate the features of a person that render them immediately recognizable to an audience. Of particular note, seeing only the father’s obtuse stomach at one point in the film was hysterical and all too familiar, and the flabby arms of the school drama teacher seemed believable rather than pointlessly grotesque.

Beyond the characters that inhabit the world of ParaNorman, the small town setting also lends credence and honesty to the film’s moral lesson on how to deal with being odd and strange when compared to one’s peers. The town in the film is understood to be a historic, colonial village, first settled and established by the Puritans. Thus, being different from others leads the film into other areas of social criticism, such as examining the underlying prejudices of small town living and the willful ignorance that comes from such prejudices. To discover such a heavy and complicated moral lesson being taught so brilliantly within a children’s animated feature is fantastic, and only strengthens one’s initial fondness for this cinematic wonder.

It is obvious that directors Chris Butler and Sam Fell have learned a lot over the years from working under other directors of animated films, most notably Henry Selick, whose distinctive aesthetic vision and artistry is mirrored almost exactly in this film’s look, tone, and feel. Henry Selick’s animation studio Laika also seems to be ready to produce more great films without the direction of its founder. If more directors of animated features would take the time to work under other directors for a substantial amount of time, as Butler and Fell certainly seem to have done, maybe there would be more children’s fare that could be as mature and innately loveable as this one.

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