Studio Laika is one of the new premiere studios for stop motion animation these days. I mean with academy award nominations for each of their four films, one could say that while they haven’t won they are batting one hundred for potential quality recognized. No film has had a mixed reception by critiques besides potentially Boxtrolls and it is easy to consider them one of the more unique animation studios out today. Though I have only started watching their films last year with Kubo and the Two Strings, I have always been confused by one of their films in general and that is ParaNorman. It is a kid’s film that strives off the perceptions of zombies in today’s media, where it dissects what a zombie should be into a relevant theme about mob mentality and perception. With such a great goal in mind, how effectively does the film go about it and can it be whimsical enough to dissuade people from writing it off as a cheap way of making zombies kid friendly?
ParaNorman is about Norman, a kid ostracized in his town for being weird because he believes he can see ghosts. It turns out that fact is completely true and he becomes the only one in town that can save it from the curse of the original witch the town condemned during its early colonial years. If her curse is enacted she will raise the dead to walk on the earth once more and much like what the trailers show this does in fact happen and makes up the bulk of the film. The build up towards the inevitable rise of the dead is a bit typical to say the least. Norman is treated badly by all those around him, except the ghosts. They perceive him to be a freak and we get plenty of the typical tropes that come along with that like the one other kid who warms up to him or the stereotypical bully who gets no character development really. The real bread and butter of this story is in how it subverts zombie lore and sells you on a message of reflection, perception, and accepting who you are. Utilizing the witch as another means for Norman to understand the lesson of taking it out on them makes you no better than they were.
One could say that theme is overplayed a bit nowadays as a lot of films fall under the message of “love yourself”. The difference with ParaNorman is its use of zombie’s and thriving in this b-horror type of atmosphere. The zombies seem off the first time you see them and only a few zombies have risen from their graves. Right from the start there is something off about the zombies, something off about what is going on. The zombies act afraid, and seem to have personalities and are eventually preyed upon by the fears of the townsfolk who have seen what zombies are. The film even showcases the classic nature of zombies in the beginning through a recreation of a b-horror film. This is a film that plays upon expectation that zombies are terrifying to show you the meaning of perception, that not everything is as black and white as you see it. Every element of the zombies to the witch and her curse plays into Norman’s journey of coming to terms with himself and learning that he’s okay. It is a simple film where you can see the beats coming, but it is the unsuspecting layers that are underneath such a tale that will stand the test of time.
My only problem with this approach is that it takes a while to hammer in the message of “these people think Norman’s a freak”. I mean by the halfway point it was shoved into our face a little bit too much by almost every single member of the cast and while I appreciate the second half of the film it takes a while to get there. Then of course there are characters that while act like obstacles in the movie, much like the bully, I can’t say that they develop much if at all. There are some small changes in attitude and perspective, but I can only really call Norman a character who is fleshed out beyond the stereotype they are given. When they sometimes do break stereotype it is often used for one-liners that may cause a laugh here and there for those who understand the tropes at play but not to those who are uninitiated. Which is weird since this film is geared towards kids and that type of referential humour should be lost on them at this point as I highly doubt many of them have seen a Romero before.
Just because the characters do not develop, doesn’t mean we aren’t given ample time to really learn about who they are and have fun with them. Each of the main cast is given moments where they shine through comedy, if only after they remind us that they are meant to be one-dimensional stereotypes from b-horror movies. Though by the end we do have the revelation of “Norman’s not weird” to the entire cast, but it merely given one moment of relatively contained emotions. One scene of his family, rather than really giving any credence to the other characters who played up the angle of being insufferable human beings. Comedy, even if executed well, does not remedy a performance or a character in a film like this but it does help us get into the tone of it. The entire tone of the film becomes this resounding sense of tense whimsy, where the magic is not so much evil as it is misunderstood and if they played it completely straight then it would be far too dour for children. That is where I wonder whether or not the whimsical tone plays as a strength or a detriment to the film.
The film’s main purpose is about Norman coming to terms with himself and I don’t know if the large amounts of humour really plays to that strength even if it feels necessary to maintain the children’s film moniker. The comedy is entertaining and a highlight, but up until the end of the film I never felt the impact of its morals or rather what it wanted me to feel towards its events. It paces itself correctly, making sure that we are building up to the final confrontation and piecing the journey of Norman and the Witch along the way yet the weight of the story never reaches a moment where I felt close to having my heart warmed. It lacks the punch the ending needed and I think the whimsical feeling of the film as a whole played a part in that where other films made by Studio Laika have a perfect balance between the magic of the world and keeping the tone and feeling of the film on point. Playing to a kind of light-hearted tone made the dark ideas falter and the impact lessened because it never felt like it built up the atmosphere to the point where I should be invested in a generic “boy is weird, boy is misunderstood, boy saves town, boy is understood” type of story. I mean besides the whole ghost aspect and the ending and playing with tropes the movie is quite weak in the regards of maintaining a consistent atmosphere.
Kubo and the Two Strings was a film that handled these elements and comedy well because it always keep the world and the tone in mind. It kept in your mind that there was always something foreboding about Kubo’s journey and that the jokes felt like lulls within a dark journey that was kid friendly but didn’t hold their hand. ParaNorman didn’t have that type of execution for me an offered me a story that lacks the sense of weight required to get top marks even if the overall film was fun and likable. I can’t say it was tonally inconsistent as a film as it kept to its tone, I just can’t say that the impact the story wanted was fully going to be achieved with it for me. It was fun, light-hearted, deconstructed tropes and generally surprised me with its ideas and central character, but it never floored me like it did with other people because the concoction it was playing with never evoked those feelings in me. So while I definitely think it was a good movie, I can’t give it full marks.
Studio Laika so far has impressed me on not only a storytelling level, but as an animation studio. The imagination and spectacle of these films is breathtaking at times and I love that. Have to give props to a studio that should be put in the same sentence as Disney, Pixar, Ghibli, based on their great track record so far for me.
So have you watched ParaNorman? What do you think about references in a kids film and how they should be done, particularly ones that are the brunt of the comedy like ParaNorman basing it on something kids wouldn’t know so well? Feel free to leave a comment down below and don’t forget to have yourself an awesome day!