I've been writing a lot about animated films. It started with my admittedly unflattering review of Ice Age: Continental Drift and ever since I seem to be thinking about the beautifully rendered but dramatically deficient animated movies the viewing public is being offered right now. Now great animated movies have always been a rare thing, but it seems like the studios aren't even trying anymore. Lacking in the most common qualities of drama – compelling themes, engaging characters, a good plot, witty dialogue – these films are computer-generated trifle which hope to distract us with all the noise and bother.
In some ways it's our fault. We've taught the animation film industry that no matter what it is, if it contains talking animals or objects, we'll dole out big bucks to see it. By rewarding mediocrity with money, we ensure that films like The Smurfs and Cloudy with the Chance of Meatballs actually get sequels. Sequels, people! Come on!
But I don't want to turn this blog into another rant. Instead, I figured I would highlight a studio which is providing something fresh and innovative – Laika Studios located in Hillsboro, Oregon. The studio doesn't have much of a portfolio yet, only the critically-acclaimed Coraline (2009) and last year's Paranorman, but it's enough to impress. I'm going to use Paranorman as an example of what I think Laika's doing right in animation.
I admit I didn't see the film when it was out in theaters last summer. Although the theme is one I would normally gravitate towards, I didn't find the previews or overall marketing campaign to be very engaging and dismissed it as another been-there, done-that film. And honestly, it didn't help that it was being advertised alongside Hotel Transylvania (truly a been-there, done-that film) and I began to equate the two in my mind. My bad for being a narrow-minded shill of corporate advertising campaigns. Regardless, when I did get around to watching it on Netflix I was delighted by what I found.
Not only was the animation exceptional – a combination of stop-motion with CGI innovations – but the plot and themes addressed had an appeal for both young people and older audiences. To be clear, when I say young people I don't mean children. I'd be hard-pressed to describe it as a kids' film, so don't fall into the old assumption that if something's animated it's automatically appropriate for the elementary school set. This is a film about about a middle school-aged boy who can see dead people. Well, not just see them. Hold conversations and build relationships with them. The weird ability has made poor Norman an outcast in his own family, school and town... But even outcasts can have their place when it falls on Norman's slender shoulders to stop a spell which will raise the dead from their graves. The culprit behind all this is a 17th century Puritan girl who was persecuted and murdered for being a witch. Quite a difference from Ice Age: Continental Drift where the overriding theme seemed to be "dads and daughters just don't get each other sometimes."
Yes, that's right, homicide is at the heart of Paranorman and it doesn't shy away from it. Nor doesn't shy away from the adjacent moral questions such as religious bigotry, revenge, mob rule and paranoia. The dialogue is witty and the characterizations are unique, and it's all propelled forward by a strong theme about how we're all outcasts in our own way. There are some problems with Paranorman, at times it gets a little too preachy and highfalutin, but let's give them props for shooting for a message lofty enough that it requires some extra exposition.
Aside from the care they put into their storytelling, Laika also crafted an visually stunning film. The studio took three years to produce Paranorman. You can see why in the final product. The stop-motion animation means the boy's world was finely crafted down to the last detail. The sets don't exist in a computer algorithm, but were real miniatures someone had to craft, paint, and light by hand. Take a look at the short video below and you'll get some idea of the painstaking artistry which went into this film.
Now if you just want a mindless 90-minute romp at the theater, there are still plenty of offerings out there for you. But also, please, take the time to search out the really good ones like Paranorman... those rare little gems that not only move you, but will have you thinking about the experience for days to come.