Why does stop-motion animation work so well as a medium for the macabre, from The Nightmare Before Christmas to Tim Burton’s Corpse Bride and Coraline?
I think it’s partly because stop-motion trades on the creepiness potential of dolls. Dolls don’t have to be creepy, but they plunge us into the precritical world of childhood, reaching past the defenses of adult rationality, which opens the door to creepiness like nothing else.
There’s something dreamlike about dolls moving by themselves, a technique that evokes the earliest days of cinema; it seems to belong to another world, much like silent film. That’s why the Vatican film-list honoree Nosferatu — a silent-era vampire movie with some stop-motion effects — remains creepier than any vampire talkie. A computer-animated Halloween tale like Monster House, however well made, is inseparable from the modern milieu of graphics cards and processors that produced it — and while the computer age can be scary, it isn’t macabre.
A doll has no life outside the life we give it. Actors in a live-action film are bigger than their roles; however scared you are for Jamie Lee Curtis in Halloween, you can tell yourself she took breaks between shots and went on to make scads of other films. A doll isn’t playing a character; it is the character. That’s partly why The Miracle Maker is the most persuasive of Jesus films: Like an icon or a crucifix, the figurine that represents Jesus is Jesus in a way no actor could be.
It’s also why Norman, with his bristle-brush hair standing on end, embodies his horror-movie milieu even more absolutely than Haley Joel Osment in The Sixth Sense. Like Osment’s character, Norman (voiced by Kodi Smit-McPhee) sees dead people — and he finds them considerably easier to relate to than the living. Misunderstood at home by his family and at school by bullies and teachers, Norman takes solace in the companionship of the affable ghosts haunting his small New England town.
The dead are one thing; the undead are something else, perhaps. Norman suffers from frightening visions of a dark incident in his town’s colonial past — a Salem-style witch trial that could come back to more than haunt the town. Alarmingly, the town kook, Mr. Prenderghast (John Goodman, whose familiar avuncular tones are one of the film’s missteps), who also happens to be Norman’s uncle, seems to know all about Norman’s visions — and he intimates that the boy’s gift may be all that stands between the town and an invasion of zombies.
ParaNorman is the sophomore film from Laika, the creators of Coraline. As with Coraline, there’s a lovingly hand-crafted quality to the character and production design, albeit augmented by cutting-edge technology. It’s not as daringly, disturbingly original as Coraline, but the script is peppered with wit and benefits from a palpable affection for its genre roots, especially the cheesy, low-budget horror films of the 1970s parodied in the opening sequence.
On the downside, most of the characters are one-dimensional stereotypes drawn without much affection (though all are more or less redeemed): Norman’s shrill cheerleader sister Courtney (Anna Kendrick); dumb-jock Mitch (Casey Affleck), the older brother of Norman’s one friend, nerdy, overweight Neil (Tucker Albrizzi); and goth bully Alvin (Christopher Mintz-Plasse), an older version of Moe from Calvin & Hobbes.
Norman’s father (Jeff Garlin, who voiced the Captain in Wall-E) embodies the most hackneyed of animated-film tropes: the blustering patriarch who doesn’t understand his offspring and insists that he conform to social norms. Norman’s more understanding mother (Leslie Mann) does put a sympathetic spin on the father’s behavior — she implies that his rigid attitude is only because he wants Norman to be happy, and he’s afraid society will reject him for his oddities — though this is a nuance that seldom inflects the father’s own behavior.
Somehow, for better and for worse, that notion of people being unkind out of fear becomes the movie’s defining theme. This becomes poignant when extended to the one group of characters least likely to elicit empathy in a movie like this: the Puritan judges at the witch trial in the film’s back story, whose actions are seen as genuinely evil, yet who are depicted as doing what they thought was right, but acting out of fear and ignorance.
It becomes problematic, though, when the movie tries to follow the theme all the way through, to dissolve all apparent evil and malice into misunderstanding, anger and fear. This approach can work in some stories, but evil is too potent and too palpable to eradicate entirely from the realms of fantasy and imagination. Corpse Bride achieved mixed success with its depiction of a ghoulish afterlife devoid of true horror with at least some openness to transcendence. On the other hand, How to Train Your Dragon succeeded in its sympathetic reinterpretation of its seemingly ferocious dragons in part by retaining one truly malevolent mega-dragon at the bottom of the draconian hierarchy who was ultimately responsible for the depredations of the rest.
ParaNorman tries to go the Corpse Bride route to an extent, but mixes in images of such iconic, manifest malificence that its stab at an empathic twist falls flat. If it’s not quite sympathy for the devil, it’s something not too far removed from it. For a corrective counterexample, see Monster House. In both films, evil begins with cruelty and mistreatment, leading to tragedy and thereby to implacable, vengeful wrath. But Monster House recognizes that evil has lasting consequences: that at some point vengeful wrath metastasizes into something that can no longer be reasoned with or appealed to; that sympathy is not the answer to everything. ParaNorman tries to have its cake and eat it too. It doesn’t work.
The cherry on this postmodern moral cake is a throwaway punch line at the very end explicitly establishing that muscle-bound oaf Mitch — who’s gone the entire movie oblivious to Courtney’s obvious fawning in a way that no straight guy, however dense, could possibly be — is homosexual. At no time is Mitch himself mistreated by anyone, either out of fear or for any other reason. Still, in the film’s moral universe, fear and ignorance are the obvious explanations for every kind of failure to embrace and affirm every kind of differentness, including homosexuality.
As this suggests, despite its appealing animated look, ParaNorman is not family fare, even for more adventurous kids able to handle the likes of Monster House. (Early in the film, asked what he’s watching on TV, Norman casually says, “Sex and violence.”) Still, older genre fans may enjoy its craft and whimsy, in spite of its obvious issues. It’s fair to say that the overtly objectionable elements are tangential, and, on the whole, it’s a pretty good-hearted film, with a likable protagonist and some entertaining set pieces. It’s melancholy to say it, but Hollywood product these days is so homogenized that something different is often a breath of fresh air, even if at times it’s better not to inhale.
Steven D. Greydanus is the
Register’s film critic.
Content Advisory: Pervasive creepy/scary images, including animated gore and gross-out images, usually played for laughs; some rude humor; a few mature references, including a reference to a same-sex romantic relationship. Might be okay for mature teens and up.