Animation is for children. At least, this is what some adults will try to have you believe. Current Disney CEO Bob Chapek is one such adult, which may partially explain why the world is in the midst of a live-action-remake-renaissance. The fine folks over at PIXAR Animation Studios have never held such a belief, knowing that children can handle most of what life can throw at them and that’s there no use hiding them from reality. The same is true of Laika Studios, whose 2009 classic Coraline delighted and terrified audiences of all ages. It was the very first film they’d produced for themselves, having assisted on other projects like The Corpse Bride, but it wouldn’t be their final forray into the world of horror. 3 years later came ParaNorman, which is often overshadowed by it’s predecessor but is no less creative.
The story follows 11 year old Norman, who has the unique ability to see and speak to ghosts, as he attempts to stop a 300 year old witches curse from destroying his town. The curse, which until recently had been held at bay by a crazed hermit, brings back to life the seven jurors who sentenced the witch to death as well as the spirit of the witch herself. Along the way, he is assisted by his older sister Courtney, school bully Alvin, best friend Neil and Neils older brother Mitch. It’s a simpler plot than Coraline but the characters and their dynamics are just as interesting. There’s the classic sibling rivalry betwween Norman and Courtney which also exists between Neil and Mitch, whilst Alvin finds himself clinging to the group out of fear. Courtney’s infatuation with Mitch is especially fun to witness, particularly on a rewatch with the knowledge that Mitch is gay.
The plot never makes a big deal out of that fact. It isn’t a running thread throughout themovie and, when revealed, isn’t given an aura that demands praise. It’s just part of who he is and comes up naturally, which is how it should be. Gay people are more than just their sexuality, which is something that Laika continues to understand. Their following three films would include gay characters, both in the background and the foreground, but there was never a massive deal made about them. Disney has been expecially bad for using gay characters as a marketing gimmick but the fail to grasp that this community isn’t demanding attention. The goal is simply to be included because that’s how it is in reality. The LGBT community only seems loud because it fights so hard to exist without prosecution, which is only getting more difficult by the year. Characters like Mitch normalise a community that has been seen as “other” for decades and help children to realise that, not only are there gay people, but that it’s ok to be gay yourself. It breeds a more open and loving ideollogy in children who see it and provides hope for a netter tomorrow for the community. Mitch was the first gay character in a “children’s” movie and he remains one of the best examples of how such a character can be handeled.
The most interesting development in ParaNorman occurs as act three begins. The seven undead jurors are not the steotypical undead, but are instead victims of the witches curse who wish to be set free. The overall message here is to not jusge a book by its cover but this only works because the idea of a “zombie” is so ingrained in popular culture…which is fascinating. It’s an idea embeded so deep withing society that this tweist works regardless of the age of the viewer and it only works better as time goes on. The zombie genre has seen a surge in popularity over the last decade propelled, in part, by the success of shows like The Walking Dead (a show which ironically will not die). However it also means that subverting the expectation of brain-hungry zomnies is not as unique as it once was, having been used in films like Warm Bodies and Life After Beth. ParaNorman was one of the originators and, considering how well they pulled it off, it’s no wonder it stuck around.
It’s also a remarkable homage to the B Movies of old. The opening scene is an in-universe B Movie which perfectly sends up the hoaky acting, simple sets and bright colours. This homage continues throughout the film itself. Laika’s signature stop-motion animation comes across on screen as more jagged and slow in movement, providing a slightly uneasy feel akin to the low frame rates of early cinema. There’s also a lighter tone than something like Coraline, although it still has its dark moments. The eventual reveal of the witches identity is as heartbreaking in terms of narrative as it is in terms of historical accuracy. There is also a direct link between the witch, the hermit and Norman which is never stated outright but is evident enough from context clues. It feels that a link like that would be directly adressed in a film today, but again ParaNorman refuses to talk down to its audience.
Despite the admiration the creative team clearly have for the horror genre and the admiration audiences should hold for their creative process, ParaNorman remains second fiddle to Coraline.This is likely down to its simplicity and lack of emotional weight in comparrison, but that doesn’t make it a lesser film. ParaNorman has enough charm, humour and stly to stick around in the public conciousness…even garnering a 4K remaster for its tenth anniversary. There is plenty of room for both and they make a spectacular double bill, with Coraline serving as the major scare and ParaNorman acting as a semi-palette cleanser. Both feature a suitably spooky aesthetic and are sure to entertain.
ParaNorman is fun for the whole family.
And, incidentally, a Happy Halloween to you at home!