by Delon Villanueva
Stop-motion animation studio LAIKA, Inc. received high praise for its first cinematic effort, Coraline, back in 2009. Under the direction of Henry Selick, of Nightmare Before Christmas fame, LAIKA was put on the map, becoming a worthy competitor to studios like Pixar. Unfortunately, due to an unsuccessful renewal of his studio contract, Henry Selick left LAIKA the same year Coraline was released, and opened his own production company, Cinderbiter Productions (although one of his two Disney projects has been recently halted due to creative differences). This gave room at LAIKA for new talent to bring something to the table, as first time writer-director Chris Butler joins animation veteran Sam Fell to helm ParaNorman, LAIKA’s second project. Although the film looks to be in the same spooky veins of Coraline, is ParaNorman just living off its critical fame or does it work as a stand-alone picture? Well, I’m pleased to say that LAIKA has struck gold again, by coming out with the best animated film of the year so far.
ParaNorman follows the story of Norman Babcock (voiced by Kodi Smit-McPhee), a young boy with the unique ability of being able to talk to the dead. One problem, though: no one in town, including his own family, believes him. In fact, they think he’s so weird, that they’re afraid of him. Ridiculed by his peers on a daily basis, Norman’s gift is much more of a curse, but little does he know, there’s a real curse upon his small Massachusetts town, Blithe Hollow. A 300-year-old witch’s curse has brought the dead back to life, and it’s up to Norman to use his power to save the day. Joining him on his journey is his chubby sidekick of a friend, Neil (Tucker Albrizzi), Norman’s teenage sister, Courtney (Anna Kendrick), Neil’s jock brother, Mitch (Casey Affleck), and the school bully, Alvin (Christopher Mintz-Plasse). The voice cast brings a great amount of energy to the already colorful characters. I love the attention to detail in these stop-motion animated films, especially in ParaNorman. The throwbacks to classic horror flicks and B-movies really add another layer to its intense visuals.
Though aside from visuals, the screenplay is what makes this movie so special, even if it could have been tighter, with a quicker pace. Chris Butler’s script takes some time setting up the movie, but once it gets going, it only goes up from there. In the first act, the film introduces a theme of not letting fear take away from being you, and I thought it was a small but unique touch to the story. Though heading towards the movie’s finale, the theme goes into much deeper places, and that’s when the film won me over. Although ParaNorman doesn’t earn the same creative merits of Coraline, this is a more sentimental and charming film that I equally appreciate (not that the movie’s all cutesiness, there’s plenty of dead bodies to go around). The artistic group at LAIKA has proven itself to being one of the top animation studios in the industry today. I’m afraid this movie will be rather overlooked, as it is being released during the late summer, but if you miss it in theaters, definitely check it out on home video. It’s easily one of my favorites this season.