At first glance, ParaNorman sounds like one of Tim Burton's gothic horror movies. It's a stop-motion animated film about ghosts and zombies, after all. The main character is a weird little kid who's ostracized because of his supernatural gifts. The film's writer and co-director, Chris Butler, even worked on Burton's Corpse Bride.
But when you actually see ParaNorman, which comes out tomorrow, you realize it's something way different. We talked to Butler and the film's other director, Sam Fell, and they told us four reasons why ParaNorman is like nothing you've ever seen before.
Despite the presence of zombies, witchcraft and ghosts, ParaNorman isn't really a horror movie in any meaningful sense, insists Fell. "We wanted to use horror conventions and references to tell a story about a kid who's an outsider."
"It's an adventure, a roller coaster ride," says Butler. "It has more in common with Scooby-Doo than it does with any horror movie."
In fact, early on in Paranorman, we see Norman watching a lot of old zombie movies and spooky horror films, because he's "trying to decipher his strange gift," says Butler. "He tries to find solutions in horror movies," because "he's trying to figure it out."
And the zombies in the film aren't your standard horror-movie zombies. In general, the film tries to play with your preconceptions of where the story is going, then pull the rug out from under you.
"We didn't want to do a gory film," says Fell. "We talked about how intense the film would get, versus how funny it would be." And there were a lot of things they did to tone down the horror elements, including using a particular camera angle, sound or piece of lighting. "It was all very carefully modulated," says Fell.
"What's surprising people about [ParaNorman] is that they're having a really fun time, but they're also coming out of it thinking," Butler says. "And I think that's what movie-making's all about."
As we mentioned, Butler worked with Tim Burton on Corpse Bride (as well as being storyboard supervisor on Coraline.) And Butler says Burton's work was definitely on his mind as he developed ParaNorman — because films like Nightmare Before Christmas had a huge impact on the medium of stop-motion animation.
But Burton is obsessed with the 1950s and black-and-white horror movies, full of creaky sets that you can tell are fake. Burton loves all the tropes of "Universal monsters and theremin" music, says Butler, and the films of Ed Wood. Burton also harks back to Victorian touches and gothic imagery, full of "curlicues and stripey socks." He has a very distinctive style, and "we see no point in aping that, because he's already doing a very good job at doing it himself," says Butler.
Meanwhile, Butler and Fell, belonging to a different generation, are much more obsessed with 1980s movies than 1950s ones. Both directors are huge fans of The Goonies, and they frequently reference that film as one of the touchstones for ParaNorman. But in fact, they were trying to recapture the feel of a lot of early Amblin films, and other films of that era such as Ghostbusters. "It's a period of film-making that influenced both of us," says Butler." This was a time that featured a lot of "more irreverent family movies" that were "a little more brave, and maybe a little more true in their depictions of real life," says Butler.
"Anyone with half a brain can see this is not a Tim Burton movie," Butler adds.
"What we wanted to do was take a step away from anything that had been done before," says Fell, "and find our own voice. I think that's important to Laika," the production company. "It was certainly important on Coraline, to do something that we hadn't quite seem before. And the difference between Coraline and this was important to us as well. That's the brand of Laika, is to do something you haven't seen before."
But Fell and Butler stressed that they were trying to keep the world of the film believable — which meant toning down the physical comedy and staying focused on the characters. "We wanted to make it a naturalistic world, a believable world, [something] quite sophisticated. Not a cartoon," says Fell.
A major goal of this realism was for the characters to feel totally real — so that when they're in peril, their jeopardy feels real, too. "An important part of the storytelling, for us, was to feel like, if these kids fell down, they would hurt themselves," says Butler. "If you establish that, then there are stakes. There is somewhere to go dramatically, with the story." In a lot of animated comedies, "the characters are thrown all over the place, all the time." But the makers of ParaNorman were determined that you should "always believe these are real people," says Butler.
That commitment to naturalism came out in the way that the directors approached the performances of the stop-motion puppets. A lot of stop-motion animation features action that's very "theatrical," says Butler, but he and Fel were trying to do something really different.
A lot of puppetry is related to mime, it's very exaggerated. Everything is very big, and your whole body tells how you're feeling. We wanted to do something more like movie acting, with the subtlety of small expressions. And another thing we did that was different is, we gave time to scenes that weren't driven by the story, that were just the characters hanging out.
Usually, when you're storyboarding an animated film, says Butler, you cut out anything that's not integral to the plot. Any scene that doesn't move the plot forward gets chopped, because it's expensive to create — so it was unusual that ParaNorman got to keep some of its quieter, character-building scenes. That way, you get to see more of the characters' idiosyncrasies and little quirks.
Another way that the directors tried to make the film feel more natural: They cast real kids as the main characters — "they're not adults pretending to be kids," says Fell. They also recorded the kids together and kept all of their dialogue mistakes in the film.
One of the things that strikes you when you watch the film is that Norman seems so good-natured and cheerful, chatting happily with all the ghosts that only he can see. Fell says they didn't want to go with the typical image of the kid who's "afflicted" by his special abilities — in fact, Norman has no problem with his talents.
"He's the flipside of Haley Joel Osment in The Sixth Sense," says Butler. "He's not angst ridden. He's actually more than comfortable with his gift — he's comfortable with who is. What worries him is that no-one else seems to be."
It's just other people who have a problem with it, including the other kids at school, who pick on Norman for being a weirdo. And Norman's dad, who's constantly trying to get Norman to stop being such a freak. Norman's mom, whose relatives have had similar "gifts" to Norman's, is caught in the middle. The portrayal of Norman's messed-up family life is one of the most powerful elements in the film, even though it's not ever over-dramatized.
Norman's mother is "kind of in denial" about her son's situation, says Fell. "She's married to a bit of an ogre, and she gets through life by papering over the cracks." This is straight out of early Spielberg films, which often featured families that were "complex, and less than perfect."
"Every kid knows the sound of their parents arguing," says Butler.
And even though Norman isn't brooding or self-pitying, he's still very much a classic outsider. And Butler says it's no accident that this sort of figure is often at the center of a fantasy story: "There's always going to be the kid who's picked on. The outsider is rich in storytelling, they've got something to fight against."
ParaNorman is in theaters tomorrow.