Hollywood Grind: PARANORMAN Blazes a Stop-Motion Indie Trail

Managing Editor; Dallas, Texas (@peteramartin)
Hollywood Grind: PARANORMAN Blazes a Stop-Motion Indie Trail

ParaNorman, which opens wide today across the U.S. and Canada, is an original, handmade film produced by Laika, an independent animation studio located near Portland, Oregon. As I wrote in my review, it's "a terrific, ghoulish, comic thriller that cheerfully wears its bloody heart on its sleeve."

And, unfortunately, it also faces the daunting task of opening in theaters on the same day as The Expendables 2, which features well-known stars and an easy-to-sell premise. I haven't seen it yet -- despite opening wide, the distributor screened it in advance only for critics in Los Angeles and New York, with some press in Austin also getting a look -- but I'm willing to bet that ParaNorman is the film that will be remembered more fondly.

It's not just the relative novelty of stop-motion animation or the cheerful gothic vibe or the refreshing vision of a horror movie that can be enjoyed by youngsters and older folks alike; what really makes ParaNorman stand out is that it revolves around a realistically likable lead character. Again quoting myself:

Despite the torment he has suffered in his young life, 11-year-old Norman still has a big heart, swelled by generous, optimistic thinking that has kept him open to new experiences. Instead of withdrawing into his own problems, he remains sensitive to the emotional needs of others; he has great empathy, which makes him a tremendously appealing protagonist.

Add to that some tasty voice work by Kodi Smit-McPhee, Anna Kendrick, Tucker Albrizzi, Casey Affleck, and Tempestt Bledsoe, and, of course, zombies, and the result is a fully satisfying treat with a potent after-taste.

Laika Films is an independent outfit, but it's not a shoestring operation. It has its roots in Will Vinton Studios, known for claymation television commercials featuring the California Raisins and M&M candy. Phil Knight, co-founder of Nike, Inc., whose son Travis had secured a job as an animator there, became an investor in 1998. Knight then became the largest shareholder in 2002, when the company 'teetered on the edge of bankrupty,' according to a report, and the following year Knight acquired the company admidst legal battles; Vinton was laid off.

Two years later, the company was renamed Laika, with one division creating commercials for clients and the other focused on filmed entertainment. The original intention was to develop both stop-motion and CGI animated projects.

Henry Selick, who directed Coraline, Laika's first film, was interviewed during production: He "has a theory he does better work the farther away from Hollywood he is." The filmmaker "points out that long, rainy winters are conducive to the time requirements of animation." Perhaps that contributed to the film's atmosphere, which struck me as "much more apt to be distracted by the playful creatures and constantly-changing landscapes of the dreamy, sometimes surreal world it inhabits than anything so mundane as real-world concerns or episodes that move the plot forward rather than sideways."

Laika's second announced project was Jack and Ben's Animated Adventure, which was meant to be CGI animated. After three years of development, however, and just two months before Coraline was released, Jack and Ben's was shelved. Coraline did well at the box office, grossing more than $120 million worldwide. In September 2009, the company made the decision that it would specialize in stop-motion only, using computer animation on a limited basis in its feature films. Shortly thereafter, unable to negotiate a satisfactory new contract, Selick left the company.

Chris Butler, who wrote the film and co-directed with Sam Fell, conceived of the idea for ParaNorman around the turn of the century; he told USA Today that he "liked the idea of a kid who is comfortable speaking with the dead. 'The living people suck,' he said. 'It's the dead people who have time for him.'"

In that interview, Butler acknowledged influences including Scooby-Doo and Night of the Living Dead, the latter of which he saw when he was "way too young." He recalled, "My brother was scared and wetting himself, and I was like, 'Huh. How does that work? What is the physics of this? Why don't they run?' "

Production on ParaNorman concluded last year. The studios at Laika Films are currently dark, but the company plans to announce its next project shortly, no matter how ParaNorman does, with production expected to start this fall. Laika has several projects in development, including Goblins, based on an upcoming novel by Philip Reeve, and Wildwood, based on a graphic novel by Colin Meloy, a local musician.

Eventually the company would like to release one movie every year, but despite the deep pockets and paternal interest of Phil Knight -- and an ongoing deal with Focus Features for distribution -- Laika faces a tall order, and I'm not talking about the competition. First with Coraline, and now with ParaNorman, they're establishing a high bar of quality, one that will not be easy to maintain.

But here's the thing. Travis Knight, Phil Knight's 38-year-old son -- and president and CEO of the company since 2009 -- is running things, and yet still makes time to work as a stop-motion animator; he served as lead animator for key scenes in ParaNorman. That's a reassuring thought; I can't imagine the head of a Hollywood studio spending time as a second unit director, for example.

With that kind of leadership, and Laika's first two films being sterling productions, if I was a gambling man, I'd bet on them.

ParaNorman opens wide in Canada and the U.S. today. Check local listings for theatres and showtimes.

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Chris ButlerSam FellKodi Smit-McPheeTucker AlbrizziAnna KendrickCasey AffleckAnimationAdventureComedy

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