2011 hasn’t exactly been an exceptional year for animated films. Besides this spring’s deliciously strange “Rango” and this summer’s gorgeous, supple “Winnie the Pooh,” there hasn’t been a whole lot to fawn over, animation-wise. (When Pixar unloads a colossal letdown like “Cars 2,” you know the medium is having an “off year.”) Thankfully, 2012 is poised to be an embarrassment of riches, with new movies from proven studios like Blue Sky (“Ice Age: Continental Drift”), Illumination ("The Lorax"), Disney ("Wreck-It Ralph" and Tim Burton's "Frankenweenie") Aardman (“The Pirates! Band of Misfits”) and the beloved Studio Ghibli (“The Secret World of Arriety”), as well as a brand-new Pixar property (“Brave,” plus the heavily Pixar-associated live action hybrid “John Carter”) and the debut features from children’s illustrator William Joyce (DreamWorks’ “Rise of the Guardians”) and super-genius animator Genndy Tarkovsky (Sony’s “Hotel Transylvania”). Also being released next year is “ParaNorman,” the new 3D stop-motion film from Laika, the Portland, Oregon-based animation studio that gave us the wonderful “Coraline” back in 2009, and judging by the jaw-dropping new trailer, it’s definitely one to keep an eye on.
Based on an original concept by writer/co-director Chris Butler, who has worked as a story artist and sequence director for a number of films including “Coraline” and “The Corpse Bride,” the film is being co-directed by Sam Fell, an Aardman vet who directed the underrated “Flushed Away,” before he notoriously took over Universal’s “Tale of Despereaux” from “Triplets of Belleville” genius Sylvain Chomet after Chomet’s vision was deemed not commercial enough. It centers on a young boy named Norman Babcock (Kodi Smit-McPhee) who has the ability to talk to the dead and who is called upon to save his small town by a sea of ghastly monstrosities. The impressive voice cast also includes Casey Affleck, John Goodman, Jeff Garlin, Anna Kendrick, Leslie Mann, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, and Elaine Stritch.
The trailer (courtesy of Yahoo Movies) is an entirely wordless affair, set to Donovan’s trippy “Season of the Witch” (subbing for the eventual score by Jon Brion -- another inspired choice for an animated film). We see Norman going about his daily life (he seems to be a bit of a horror film nut, despite his very real ability to talk to the death) until things become very ghoulish and zombies start popping out of the ground and giant monsters threaten civilization. The visuals are absolutely spellbinding, with some genuinely frightening moments (the zombie scraping the wallpaper with its hooked talon) – that surreal, spooky look that they pioneered in “Coraline” seems to have been pushed even further, and we have a feeling this is really going to be amazing in 3D, a format that really benefits the tactile nature of stop-motion animation.
It’s that much more of a disappointment, given the visuals on display in the teaser trailer, that the poster for “ParaNorman” is such a dud. We understand keeping things close to the vest (the film isn’t scheduled to hit theaters until August of next year), but there’s a difference between being secretive and being bland, and the poster doesn’t tell you anything about what the movie’s about or what kind of wild, freaky pleasures are undoubtedly in store.
There was some question as to whether or not Laika -- which used to be Will Vinton Studios (aka the guys that did the dancing raisin commercials and the “Speed Demon” Michael Jackson video) until it was bought and rebranded by Nike CEO Phil Knight -- could survive the loss of creative head and “Coraline”/”Nightmare Before Christmas” director Henry Selick, who decamped for Pixar’s new stop-motion animation division (a division we’ve heard curiously little about, come to think of it). Judging by the haunting nature of the “ParaNorman” trailer, that answer is a certifiable yes. "ParaNorman" freaks out small children who beg their parents to take them to the theater on August 12, 2012.