Awards Profile: ParaNorman


Directed by: Chris Butler and Sam Fell
Written by: Chris Butler.

Cast (Voices of): Kodi Smit-McPhee, Anna Kendrick, Tucker Albrizzi, Casey Affleck, John Goodman, Leslie Mann, Jeff Garlin, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Elaine Stritch, Tempestt Bledsoe, Hannah Noyes.

Synopsis (Courtesy of Focus Features): The new 3D stop-motion comedy thriller from animation company LAIKA, reteaming the company with Focus Features after the groundbreaking Academy Award-nominated Coraline. ParaNorman is, following Coraline, the company’s second stop-motion animated feature to be made in 3D. In ParaNorman, a small town comes under siege by zombies. Who can it call? Only misunderstood local boy Norman (Kodi Smit-McPhee), who is able to speak with the dead. In addition to the zombies, he’ll have to take on ghosts, witches and, worst, of all, grown-ups, to save his town from a centuries-old curse. But this young ghoul whisperer may find his paranormal activities pushed to their otherworldly limits.

Why It Could Succeed:

From its eye-opening teaser, which brilliantly reintroduces audiences to Donovan’s 1966 psychedelic rock classic, “Season Of The Witch”, to its incredible visual style and haunting stop-motion animation imagery, ParaNorman immediately stands out as something distinctive, different, and to movie fans – dare we say important.  ParaNorman has a “Wow!” factor that few films, animated or otherwise, can offer with its teasers, trailers, and marketing thus far and anticipation is extremely high that this film will be a player in the Animated Feature race come Oscar season.  ParaNorman‘s use of stop motion animation is admittedly nothing new and comparisons have already been made to Henry Selick’s stunning 2009 Oscar-nominated Coraline, but behind-the-scenes reports and on-the-set commentaries indicate that Chris Butler and Sam Fell’s collaborative comedy/horror/thriller is perhaps the most impressive production of the year.

The Coraline comparisons are largely due to LAIKA Studios having brought both projects to the big screen, but unlike Coraline, ParaNorman is an original story and concept.  Perhaps, the original nature of the film makes the prospects and expectations that much more heightened, but the production stories are fascinating and intriguing.  Shot in legitimate 3D, the animation teams were given leeway to create their own vision for the scenes they were tasked with creating.  Likewise they were encouraged to lobby the producers and directors for why their scenes should be included.  Directors Butler and Fell managed the production expertly, but by allowing the scenes to take on lives of their own, the film promises unpredictability and lots of surprises.  Another report indicates a sequence involving several cameras creating a Matrix-style sequence involving Norman that Butler and Fell are confident has never been seen before in an animated film.

When you add in the use of 3-D technology that is also found in NASA’s space shuttles, the creation of multi-layered puppets which are created with a skin-like composition and feature arguably the most detail of any stop-motion puppets ever created, the technical mastery on display sounds simply too good to be true.

Chris Butler is a former storyboard artist on Coraline and Tim Burton’s The Corpse Bride, and ParaNorman ushers in his debut as a director and screenwriter.  Co-director Sam Fell brings his third feature-length production to the big screen, following Flushed Away and The Tale Of Despereaux.  The zombie tale, a hybrid of Scooby-Doo, Night Of The Living Dead, and an always intriguing youth-confronting-scary-monsters premise, seems in line with people’s interests and in an animated setting, perhaps a zombie film can survive the over-saturation of zombie-pop that has been prevalent these last few years.

Why It Could Fail:

Virtually all of the reports surrounding ParaNorman focus on the technical wizardry and little has been stated about the story.  Much of this has to do with the film not having been seen by anyone outside of the production team.  While the “Zombies-take-New England” storyline seems fresh in this venue, the haphazard cast of characters surrounding Norman could be underdeveloped and little more than stock supporting characters.  If there is not an adequate balance of character development and an original take on the genre, all those stunning visuals will only take the film, and audiences, so far.

Without having received its badge of (dis)honor from the Ratings Board, we are left to ponder whether ParaNorman will be suitable for younger audiences or not.  The film appears to be quite dark and intense with its Donovan-led teaser, causing one 6-year old of mine to recoil and say, with a great deal of convinction, that she did not want to see it.  While this may seem a ticky-tack concern, ParaNorman may not go far enough for those anticipating something PG-13 oriented.  Even with a PG rating, in turn telling families the film is suitable for younger audiences, families may stay away for fears that ParaNorman is too dark and could induce nightmares.  Focus has a tricky marketing plan to navigate when the film is finally screened in its final form.

Additionally, only two family films open wide in August and they both arrive on the same day.  Disney’s oft-delayed The Odd Life of Timothy Green will attempt to woo audiences away from the darker-tinged ParaNorman.  If the film hits, it does not have animated competition until Finding Nemo 3D and Hotel Transylvania arrive in mid-September.  If it falters, ParaNorman may be a distant memory when the gothic-tinged Adam Sandler-produced Transylvania arrives.

Awards Speculation:

ParaNorman may need a large field of animated features to trigger the “More-than-3” rule for this year’s Animated Feature Film Oscar in 2011.  Already competing against the highly anticipated Brave for Disney/Pixar, DreamWorks’ massive hit Dr. Seuss’ The Lorax, the upcoming Madagascar 3 and Ice Age 4, plus Tim Burton’s return to stop-motion animation, Frankenweenie, Studio Ghibli’s The Secret World of Arrietty, the massively-budgeted Rise Of The Guardians, and a certain left-field foreign entry or two, ParaNorman does not have an automatic lock for a nomination.  Stop-motion animation is not disliked by the Animation Branch necessarily, but only one stop-motion animated feature film has ever won an Oscar – Wallace and Gromit and the Curse of the Were-Rabbit, and only three other films have been nominated – Coraline, The Fantastic Mr. Fox and the aforementioned …Corpse Bride.

The film opens in theaters on August 17, 2012 in wide release opposite The Expendables 2, The Odd Life Of Timothy Green, and Sparkle and will be distributed by Focus Features.

Oscar Potential:

Best Animated Feature (Chris Butler, Sam Fell)
Best Original Screenplay (Chris Butler)
Best Original Score (Jon Brion)
Best Sound Editing (TBD)
Best Sound Mixing (TBD)
Best Film Editing (Christopher Murrie)
Best Visual Effects (TBD)

In all honesty, stop-motion animation fails to gain any consideration from the Visual Effects branch and Jon Brion is not a composer in the “inner circle” of the Music Branch.  With Best Animated Feature carrying the best opportunity for a nod, the film’s subject matter does lend itself to Sound Editing and Sound Mixing consideration.  If the film’s story and pacing is as good as its visual promises, Chris Butler could become a double nominee with a Screenplay nod; although if an animated film is on pace to score a Screenplay nod, look to Brave, based on Pixar’s track record in the screenplay categories.