Although Laika's "ParaNorman" (opening Friday) doesn't reach the brilliant heights of "Coraline" (after all, Neil Gaiman and Henry Selick are a pretty unbeatable combination), it achieves something remarkable in its own right: verisimilitude. That's pretty unique for stop-motion, and the Portland, Oregon-based Laika now has something to build on for the future, thanks to the perfection of its rapid prototype 3D color printer and a marvelous movie that looks more authentic. The fact that this story of inclusion happens to be both funny and scary at the same time also makes it worthy of Oscar consideration, even in this crowded year of stop-motion, which has already seen the release of Aardman's "The Pirates: Band of Misfits" and concludes with Tim Burton's "Frankenweenie," the potential front-runner from Disney (Oct. 5).
Of course, it was probably inevitable that naturalism seeped into the fabric of stop-motion after being adopted by CG animation through the influence of cinematographer Roger Deakins, who's consulted at both Pixar ("Wall-E") and DreamWorks ("How to Train Your Dragon"). Yet it's tailor-made for "ParaNorman," especially considering that the 3D printer now spits out facial expressions animated in Maya in color. This means the softer skin looks more human, the expressions are more diverse, and the acting more believable. Why, the sight of the sun shining through Norman's ears at sunset is dazzling.
But it's more than a technical feat. Consider the anxious moment when Norman's snarky sister Courtenay (Anna Kendrick), swoons over the muscle bound Mitch. It's a restraint you don't normally see in stop-motion. "The naturalistic acting style was the hardest part: the sense of spontaneity and just playing out in front of the camera," asserts co-director Sam Fell. "One of the great examples is the boys in the garden talking and throwing around a stick. It's tricky to be understated and just be observational and not show off."
But for co-director Chris Butler, who was head of story on "Coraline" and who nurtured "ParaNorman" for a decade, this was his opportunity to take stop-motion to a new level of sophistication. He always imagined it as the cast of "The Breakfast Club" falling into "The Fog."
"I always think about the heart of John Hughes and the scene with John Candy in the motel in 'Planes, Trains and Automobiles': that speech is hilarious and heart-breaking as well," he says. "It goes along with the scares. If you're invested in these characters and the jeopardy feels real, you want them to succeed. The rapid prototyping gave us the opportunity to do nuanced acting, which I think was such a huge leap for this medium to have shots of characters in extreme close-up where they're reacting to someone else speak. It's so subtle that ordinarily you wouldn't be able to get away with it. And stop-motion is so theatrical and so we steered away from blacks and whites and grays -- the kind of gothic stuff that Tim Burton does so well -- and we wanted to do something different. And the color gave us the opportunity. We could go to the lurid Technicolor of Italian horror movies but we could do it in a really well-informed way."