LAIKA is a new company that is responsible for what I believe to be not only one of the best animated films ever made, but also one of the best films ever. Coraline introduced us to a stop-motion animation unlike any we had seen before. This was a film with a powerful story and characters, and an aesthetic drenched in creativity, magic and awe-inspiring wonder that it has never stopped blowing my mind. Everything about it was excellent from the voice work to the impeccably original soundtrack by Bruno Coulais to exycrutiantengly detailed environment to its resonating message. In other words, Coraline is an animated masterpiece.
For their second feature film, LAIKA is unleashing ParaNorman another stop-motion film that focuses on a boy with psychic powers by the name of Norman (Kodi Smit-McPhee). Living in a small town made somewhat famous for killing a witch many years ago, Norman’s ability to communicate and see the dead have made him an outsider. His father and older sister Courtney (Anna Kendrick) are constantly trying to revert Norman to normalcy, while his mother Sandra (Leslie Mann) supports him but feels sorry for not being more helpful. As the school year starts, Norman is faced with a slew of death glares and constant bullying from Alvin (Christopher Mintz-Plasse). The only one who likes Norman is another outsider, Neil, who is constantly trying to help Norman open up to living people. Norman’s life changes drastically after the visit of his dead uncle who proclaims that the witch’s curse will bring the dead back to life if Norman doesn’t stop it.
Two things became clear after watching the trailer for ParaNorman: one that this film was not really aimed at kids (yay!) and two that in order to enjoy it I better not expect it be as good as Coraline. I personally love when an animated film looks to be for kids, but in fact a teenager or even more an adult would enjoy it a million times more. Pixar has proven this time and time again, most notably with Toy Story 3, but LAIKA has proven this since the very beginning. ParaNorman's greatness, perhaps even more so than with Coraline, will only be apparent to the older generation. The film is essentially a story that utilizes a lot of cues both aesthetically and sonically from famous zombie films. The jokes work because we know how horror films works. The way ParaNorman embraces and reconstructs the zombie norms within this creatively beautiful and freaky environment are as excellent as they are pleasing to watch. Moreover, the script has a lot of pieces of dialogue that will fly over a kid’s head but will make the parent pee his/her pants.
The voice work in the film is phenomenal. Kodi Smit-McPhee, who has always been hit and miss for me, excels as Norman. He brings such richness and empathy to the character that you immediately know how he feels. Likewise the rest of the cast is able to inject so much life to the characters that they all feel real and integral to this world. Amongst the most notable ones is Anna Kendrick as the teenage sister who selfishness causes great pain but then learns the value of standing up for those you love. There’s also Casey Affleck who voices Neil’s big bulky brother Mitch and makes even the most silly and mundane lines humorous. Affleck gives Mitch such life and a intoxicatingly chill vibe that you wish the film spend more time with him. His character reveal at the end felt a bit random, but in retrospect it makes sense.
What really makes ParaNorman a memorable animated film and easily the second best animated film of 2012 is the animation itself. While ParaNorman does not possess an elaborate story line, the environment is exceedingly elaborate. LAIKA has challenged themselves to extraordinary measures with the numerous unique set designs they’ve constructed. Watching Norman walk through the streets, graveyards and school halls is enough to make you stop and say: “Holy Shit.” The level of detail that went into the set designs is incredible and more importantly all those sets help you submerge yourself into this world. It all feels real, palpable and made me say constantly: “I want to go to there.” Every environment in the film is drench in richness and the character design is astounding. Every character is unique even the town folks whose total number I do not know but can imagine to be probably from upwards of 100.
Even though it is plain to see how LAIKA has challenged themselves with their second feature film and how it is brave enough to go to some darkly real places, at the end ParaNorman lacks the lasting effect that Coraline has. I think too much of the attention was placed on the animation of the film and less so in the story. Yes, ParaNorman has a cool and simple story with a great message but its rapid pace doesn’t leave too much room to breathe. Things are presented quite quickly and there is very little to none existent sense of danger. Having said that, ParaNorman still offers an experience that is increasingly exciting, funny and memorable. The voice work and dialogue are excellent, as well as the brilliantly awesome score by Jon Brion. But lets not kid ourselves, ParaNorman is all about the animation and in that respect it is without a doubt a incredible achievement. Now that LAIKA has proven once again that they can extend the universe of their stories with complex and very elaborate character and set designs, I hope they focus at presenting us with a much more affecting story in their third feature length film.