ParaNorman, the second feature produced by Laika, the stop-motion animation house responsible for 2009's Coraline. Now, ParaNorman was not made on computers even to the degree that much so-called traditional animation is these days; it was produced with posable dolls that were photographed, one frame at a time, and painstakingly repositioned millimeters at a time. And yet, just like Coraline, so much of the finished product is digitally smoothed together and propped up with patches of CGI in the corners and in the big effects, just like in a proper live-action movie - in fact, ParaNorman has some of the best visual effects as such that I've seen in 2012, though that's not something that an animated movie is ever going to get very much notice for - and it's quite impossible to imagine the film without the aid of computer animation, because a great deal of what makes it visually impressive simply could not be in a pre-digital age. So which is it? Traditional stop-motion or not? The answer, of course, is "fuck it, it doesn't matter", and the moral of the production history of ParaNorman is that we shouldn't get hung up on production methods and just be grateful that the means exist for talented visual artists to express their ideas with such clarity, fludity, and precision.
All of which are at a feverishly high pitch here: ParaNorman is quite probably the most sophisticated stop-motion feature ever made, which is not really an opinion, as much as a summary of all the facts. If only for the stupendously innovative way that the animation team designed the characters' facial expressions - they were painted on a computer and formed by a 3-D printer, leading to a perfection and variability unimaginable in animation prior to this (Laika estimates that the protagonist of this film is capable of 1.5 million different expressions, a particularly impressive number when you realise that at 24 frames per second, it would take 17 hours to see all of them) - and the unbelievable nuanced lighting effects, this would be enough to jump over Coraline and leave The Nightmare Before Christmas so far behind as to look like a grammar school project. It's so beautiful that it's almost unbearable, but this only secondarily the point: far more important is the way that all this exciting new tech is able to deepen the film's world, emphasise the emotions of the characters, and build a complex and sustained mood in a richly cinematic way.
If there's a downside to all this, and I'm not certain that "downside" is the word I'd use, it's that the story being told here isn't nearly as solid as the one Henry Selick attacked in Coraline, and while the place-setting in the first third or so is wonderful, writer Chris Butler (who also co-directs, with Sam Fell) might have been well-advised to spend a bit more time fleshing out a conflict that doesn't dabble in such well-worn, obvious tropes. ParaNorman centers on Norman Babcock (voiced by Kodi Smit-McPhee), an 11-year-old who lives in Blithe Hollow, Massachusetts, a town whose single apparent claim to fame is that in 1712, a witch was executed there, for nowadays the town's entire economy seems to run on witch-themed tourist shops and restaurants. It's a morbid sort of place to live, but Norman is morbid even by the standards of his peers, for he has the ability to speak with ghosts, who are thick on the ground in Blithe Hollow (the filmmakers skip the obvious "Blithe spirits" joke, which speaks better of them than it does of me), and the boy has been ostracised to the point of invisibility by bullies at school, by authority figures, and by his family. But as his strange Uncle Prenderghast (John Goodman) tells him, Norman has an important gift, and only he can save Blithe Hollow from the witch's angry spirit, readying herself to wreak vengeance on this, the 300th anniversary of her hanging, right in the middle of the town's big celebration of same event. So Norman, his new friend Neil (Tucker Albrizzi), a bullied but sweet-tempered fat kid), Norman's sister Courtney (Anna Kendrick), Neil's brother Mitch (Casey Affleck), and cowardly bully Alvin (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) go on what amounts to a fetch quest to stop the witch.
The rather dismissive way I've just dealt with the last half of the movie points the massive problem I, at least, had with ParaNorman's script: it comes down with a godawful case of the Trites, as Norman discovers that the only way he can save the town is by being true to himself and not letting the bullies, in any and all forms they take, get him down. Which is a fine and noble message, but one that's been told better than it is here, and that's not even mentioning how arbitrary much of the conflict ends up being: there's a lengthy "let's find the witch's grave" subplot that ends up serving as a great big parenthesis in the middle of the story, and the feeling is of a film that would have been airtight at 65 minutes, but because we don't know how to release movies of that length anymore, it ballooned up to 93 minutes without any inherently exciting material getting it to that point. The saving grace is the characters: uniformly well-played by the best animated cast assembled in a couple of years, at least (especially a top-notch Smit-McPhee, remarkably more sensitive and nuanced as a voice than in the live-action roles I've seen of his), each given precise and deep personalities both in the writing and the design, which itself is a major gamble that pays off handsomely: the film's style is unabashedly grotesque, suiting its horrific scenario, and for a mainstream American animated picture with a presumptive family audience, the characters are stunningly unattractive on the face of it; but it takes only a few minutes of watching the animator's clean, graceful treatment of them to get used to it, while at the same time those designs express in straightforward physical terms what kind of person the characters are. It's a hell of a thing to see, really.
Even with the characters propping up the increasingly strained story, the best part of the movie lies in the first half, which sets the mood and builds one of the most unified animated worlds I've seen in ages: just listing all of the tossed-off background jokes would be another review in and of itself, so I'll content myself just to point out a sign outside the school reading "Spelling Bee Next Wensday". Even more than just building a magnificent place in the form of Blithe Hollow, though, what I love most about the film is how seriously it takes itself: this is a legitimate horror movie, that gets the idea of a creepy old forest and town with menacing buildings that possess no straight lines or right angles better than most "actual" horror does these days, and despite the expected post-modern gags (a fake-out, "they're watching a movie" opening; spot-the-reference moments that are a bit too cutesy), ParaNorman is an earnest attempt to make a spooky bedtime story about witches and zombies, and for that I respect it.
Indeed, respect is easy in coming for a movie that does something virtually no family films are willing to: it understands that the young people in the audience aren't as innocent as adults might want them to be, and it goes places that are frankly shocking for a "kids' movie", whether it's the unabashed embrace of gore, the awareness of sexuality if not of explicit sex (mostly in Courtney's "I'm going to fuck you soon" leers at Mitch, though there's a surprising moment when a character is revealed to be homosexual that's so not-a-big-dealish about it that it's already kicked off a backlash from angry conservative parents), or a terrific throwaway line where Norman is asked to swear that he'll perform a task: "Like, the F-word?" the confused pre-teen asks, and as little as that may seem, I triple-dog-dare you to imagine the phrase "F-word" in a Disney or DreamWorks picture. Character names based on the F-word, maybe, for the parents, but the acknowledgement that The Children might be aware of it? Never, not on your life. And that's what makes ParaNorman so damn smart and worthy of love: it's not dumbed-down, not sanded off, not safe. Like last year's best animated film, Rango, it's a genre film that happens to be a cartoon that happens to be family-friendly, only for the accident that the filmmakers wanted to make a movie that randomly turned out to be that way. But a kid's movie it's not: it's a drop-dead gorgeous, deliciously creepy horror-adventure-comedy that, irrespective of genre, age, or medium is one of the very best films to have come out this summer.