I've just come back from watching Laika's new 3D stop motion animation picture ParaNorman. Yes, I even saw it in 3D - more on that later. Laika's last effort was 2009's Coraline, based on the Neil Gaiman book of the same title. I enjoyed Coraline tremendously - I've been a Gaiman fan since his uniquely creepy and literate take on the Vertigo comic Sandman and I thought the trailer for ParaNorman looked clever and fun. Then again, trailers aren't the movie, are they?
Luckily, this is a movie well worth seeing. ParaNorman is a twist on the "weird kid" movie. In this case, Norman Babcock has a talent he never asked for - he can see and speak with the dead. It doesn't seem to be much of a gift - he's considered a freak in his town of Blithe Hollow (nice name - a combo of Blithe Spirit, the Noel Coward comedy about the havoc the dead can wreak on the living and Washington Irving's Sleepy Hollow from the Headless Horseman tale) and even his family doesn't understand him. About the only person he can confide in is his grandmother, and she happens to be (you guessed it) dead. Through a strange series of events - or maybe not so strange, considering the town's main celebrity is a 300-year-old witch - the town must deal with the fallout of a curse no one really believed existed and non-normal Norman is the one best suited to bring the town back from the brink.
There's a lot in here to like. The story is interesting, the characters are fun to watch, and yes, there's even a lesson or two in here, especially about doing what's right even if you're scared and precisely how stupid scared people can be. I enjoyed the vocal talent (a lot of new voices here) and there’s a lovely, almost throwaway line that I wasn’t expecting from the jock character. Be on the lookout there – stereotypes are broken.
|Giant stop motion scorpions!! Ah, Harryhausen!|
Now let’s talk technique. Stop motion animation is the catchall term for that painstaking process of taking objects and moving them just a tiny bit, filming a single frame, then moving the objects a tiny bit more, filming another single frame and so on until you have an entire movie. It takes forever. You’ve seen this if you’ve ever seen the Rankin/Bass Christmas specials (Claymation is a specific type of stop motion using clay figures) such as Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer or The Year Without a Santa Claus, but you’ve also seen it if you’ve seen The Empire Strikes Back – look at the AT-ATs invading Hoth, which was done with extremely detailed miniature models. It’s a technique used in Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead movies (see #5 on this list) and (sigh of contented reminiscence) Ray Harryhausen’s Sinbad and Clash of the Titans flicks. (Harryhausen is so instrumental to this school of animation that the Pixar movie Monsters Inc. has a tribute to him – Mike takes his girlfriend Celia to dinner at a restaurant called “Harryhausen’s.” It’s a nice nod.)
Here, stop motion is used in conjunction with 3D (Coraline was the first film to do this all the way through). I thought the animation was wonderful – there’s some especially nice rendering of hair, for example – but if anything, ParaNorman confirmed my distaste of 3D. While this film uses 3D more to create depth than have things come flying out toward my face, I still just don’t like it. It doesn’t strengthen the story and I think it detracts from the telling of that story. And seriously – it cost a hair over $20 for two of us to see a matinee? (And that’s pre-popcorn.) Plus I can’t re-use the blasted glasses? No, thanks.
So the long and the short of it – go see ParaNorman, but don’t bother with the 3D. And dig out your old, grainy Evil Dead tape.