Monday, March 13, 2017

Laika Week, part II: Aggie—my name was Aggie


If I were ever inclined to count animated films as "proper" kid's adventures, then ParaNorman would be in real contention to be called the best of them.

Directed by Sam Fell and Chris Butler
Written by Stephen Stone, Arianne Sutner, and Chris Butler
With Kodi Smit-McPhee (Norman Babcock), Tucker Albrizzi (Neil Downe), Christopher Mintz-Plasse (Alvin), Anna Kendrick (Courtney Babcock), Casey Affleck (Mitch Downe), Jeff Garlin (Perry Babcock), Leslie Mann (Sandra Babcock), John Goodman (Prenderghast), Bernard Hill (Judge Hopkins), and Jodelle Ferland (Agatha)

Spoiler alert: high

After Coraline, anything could've happened: without a visionary like Henry Selick to lead them, Laika could've creatively petered out; and while Coraline made a noticeable profit (which turned out to be a unique occurrence for Laika), it was barely the fifth most profitable cartoon of 2009—and that's when you really dig into the numbers, and recall that of the six higher-grossing cartoons, Monsters vs. Aliens surely lost money on its overinflated budget, and A Christmas Carol, somehow more costly still, probably only eked out its positive returns.  So you can imagine that it would've been easy for Laika's actual owner, notably-shrewd businessman Peter Knight, to have instructed Laika's CEO, his son Travis, to maybe aim a little lower this time around.  Instead, the old man was indulgent, and we got a miracle: on their second pass, Laika managed a straight-up masterpiece.  They called it ParaNorman, and the single worst thing about it is the annoyance of having to remember that there are actually two capital letters in its name.

In truth, you could say that it aims lower.  It's more pandering than Coraline ever thought about being—though only in the strictest and most neutral sense of the word, inasmuch as ParaNorman, like most kid's movies, is an avowed comedy, with the psychotically juvenile (but, importantly, very funny) explosive diarrhea joke to prove it.  (On the other hand, about half of ParaNorman's comedy is its largely-delightful genre-riffing, a combination of admirably unforced direct-reference jokes, like Carpenter's Halloween theme on a cellphone, alongside a more generalized brand of reference humor, like the egregiously bad zombie movie on TV that happens to open up the film.  It's only that I find it hard to imagine that children any younger than the protagonists—or, frankly, anybody much younger than the filmmakers themselves—would actually comprehend these references.  Nevertheless, I could easily see a kid laughing at the bit where a zombie's head gets punted into the woods; certainly, the kid in me laughed at it.)

Meanwhile, the denouement features one of the last gay jokes that'll still be considered acceptable even after the Great Reconciliation is through.

Either way, ParaNorman, though it still owes much to Selick (and to Neil Gaiman, Coraline's author), is a lot less interested in a dreamy fairy tale timelessness than it is in being a pastiche of 80s kid's adventures, vaguely updated to the quasi-present.  And so does ParaNorman deploy its mismatched group of losers and cool kids (with all the potential for humorous one-note interpersonal dynamics that this implies), who help and/or interfere with our real hero (the local friendless freak, naturally), as he attempts to complete a mission of genuine cosmic importance.  But once it gets there, ParaNorman balances its silly comedy, quite gracefully and very completely, with the some of the darkest, scariest, most bona fide horror you'll ever find in any children's movie, Selick or no Selick.  And if that wasn't enough, ParaNorman wasn't about to be outdone by Coraline's well-done Fifth Commandment parable, and throws its own moral instruction into the mix.

In fact, while the movie is never ever less than purely entertaining, there's an awful lot of moral instruction here.  It includes, obviously, the shopworn-but-well-pitched general kid's movie lessons (don't be a bully; being weird means being special; jocks and cheerleaders are boring, almost-subhuman assholes—and sure, that last one could use some work, but this is a comedy we're talking about here).  Ultimately, however, ParaNorman arrives at a very pointed and very specific lesson, about how we shouldn't treat our history too lightly—because the dead don't always sleep well.  In the process, it winds up being a much-needed purgative for everything I've ever found suspect about ParaNorman's particular horror subgenre.  In other words, this is quite possibly the best movie about scary witches ever made, and it's almost certainly the one that best balances the grim necessities of horror with a basic, historically-literate decency.

But we get ahead of ourselves.  Our aforementioned freak is young Norman Babcock, of course (hence justifying the title).  He's a nerdy lad, but seems mostly normal, interested in what so many of us were interested in at his age, namely sex and violence mediated through cool horror movies, whilst being raised by parents who don't understand him, and trying to coexist with the older (and aggressively large-bottomed) sister who hates him.  What we don't know, but what we'll soon find out—in the film's astonishingly clever reveal of its premise, which honestly might actually beat out its grand progenitor, The Sixth Sense, in that it doesn't arrive an hour deep into a movie we already know the basic thrust of—is that Norman talks to the dead.  This morning, he's been talking to his grandma, who's still sitting there on the couch in their living room.  Naturally enough, Norman's gift has marked him as a weirdo to his peers, and a probable paranoid schizophrenic to his family—to paraphrase his jerk dad's rantings, because it winds up being one of ParaNorman's better off-center jokes, "Sensitive means he writes poetry and is bad at team sports," which marginally implies that he could at least kind of deal with his son if only he were merely "sensitive."  (But, to be scrupulous here, this is part and parcel of the single thing that's really "wrong" with ParaNorman.  It just so happens to be the thing you have to accept about it, in order for its story to work in the first place.)

Specifically, that Norman has somehow not been able to conclusively prove to his doubting family and peers that, yeah, he sees fucking dead people, and, further, that he has not already monetized his remarkable power and become a millionaire.  Of course, this is also what's "wrong" with The Sixth Sense.

So, let's roll with that, and treat Norman's gift as the curse he perceives it as.  He's considered morbid by everyone who knows him, even by the standards of Blithe Hollow—a crappy small town whose whole economy and culture appear to revolve solely around the fact that a witch was executed there back in the early 1700s.  As a result, Norman's become isolated, to the extent he doesn't even especially like any human contact at all; and the only person he might have to consider a friend is Neil, an overweight fellow bullying victim who essentially won't take "no" for an answer.  Soon enough, it looks like Norman's going to have to put yet another hash mark in the "curse" column, when his smelly, stalkery uncle Prenderghast—driven half-mad over the decades by his own ability to converse with ghosts—dies, and transfers unto Norman the hallowed responsbility that apparently descends their family tree, along with their power.

It's now up to Norman to take Prenderghast's ancient book and read it at the gravesite of the Blithe Hollow witch—and he'd better get it right, lest she revive, along with the evil hex she put on the town before they hanged her three centuries ago.  Norman does not get it right, mixing up the gravesites, and is on hand to witness the resurrection of the town's witch-fearing elders instead, who claw their way out of the ground as a legion of slow, and easily-bamboozled, but nonetheless very scary zombies.  It's around this time that Norman's Scooby gang comes together (they've even got a Mystery Machine and everything), and his annoyed sister Courtney, Neil's muscly brother Mitch, Neil himself, and even Norman's personal bully Alvin all wind up joining Norman in his quest to stop the witch from escaping hell.  But, despite his very best efforts, Norman fails pretty much completely on his second try, too.

It is, I suppose, something of a matter of taste how this plays for anybody else: ParaNorman, for all its manifold strengths, is almost totally predictable; even its subversion of the usual tropes of its subgenre is almost unavoidable, thanks to it being delivered in a kid's movie.  (And that's true whether you consider its subgenre to be that of a movie about a witch, or that of a movie about zombies, for both tropes get turned around here.)  Certainly, ParaNorman would be constitutionally unable, by the time it's gotten to its villain—that is, its antagonist—to actually play her purely straight.  Meanwhile, those zombies lumbering around town, all confused-like, are themselves just another kind of dead folk, and ParaNorman isn't going to just forget that its hero can talk to them—which means that they're going to have something to say, and this too shall turn out to be more-or-less what you'd expect.

What it lacks in narrative surprise, though, it more than makes up for in sheer sincerity and in thematic elegance: sometimes the price of being perfect is being inevitable.  But what makes it a masterpiece, after all, is its face-melting surfeit of raw emotion—even knowing exactly where it's heading, you'll still wind up shocked to your bones once actually confronted with the dead little girl who was once declared a witch, Agatha Prenderghast (aha), and you witness the unholy depths of her derangement.

And yet surely you'd be deranged too, if you'd spent three centuries obsessing over your murder, while every year your asshole collateral descendants kept you down in your cold, cold grave, through the magical expedient of blandly reciting a book of bedtime stories—which (for maximum ironic cruelty) your loving (and long-dead) mother once read to you, back when you were both actually alive.

Now, ParaNorman is already an essentially flawless work of stop-motion animation, from first frame to last.  (I want you to consider, just for a moment, how the light interacts with Norman's semi-translucent ears.  Then I want you to stop, because no one with a life should think about that for more than a moment, unless they themselves are an animator.)  But it reaches the absolute pinnacle of kid's horror spectacle when it arrives upon Agatha—in fact, let's drop that "kid's" qualifier.  ParaNorman is honest-to-God frightening, and it comes down to Laika's uniquely-artful combination of two technologies—exquisite stop-motion animation, blended seamlessly with computerized special effects that demolish most "live-action" blockblusters.

And so: Agatha's resurrection is presaged by a cronelike face appearing in swirling green-and-purple skies, a sublime backdrop effect that actually looks practical, like something Douglas Trumbull spent years perfecting with dyes in a water tank, even though it isn't, and couldn't possibly be; Agatha's rage against the world culminates with a vivid neon yellow electric lightshow amidst a shattered landscape; and, finally, a stuttering, doubling effect follows Agatha wherever she levitates, suggesting that her anger can't even be contained in just one body.  All in all, Agatha might be the most terrifyingly visual villain to ever be put in any animated film—and, no, I don't even think I'm forgetting anybody important.  All along, we've had Jon Brion's score to thank for setting the mood (whatever that mood needed to be), a chimeric thing that's been as pleased to riff on Carpenter (and, indeed, sub-Carpenter) electronica as it has more conservative compositions; but now it turns to the full-throated epic, adding, of all people, Clint Mansell to its list of influences.  (And if you can't hear "Death is the Road to Awe" when Norman makes his final appeal to Agatha, then that means you aren't a lawyer for ParaNorman's distributor, Universal, who—rumor has it—kept this number from making an appearance on the soundtrack album.)

But it wouldn't quite be enough, without the vocal performance worthy of all that virtuoso filmmaking.  It's a movie replete with really fine performances: Kodi Smit-McPhee leads the cast with a surprising depth of feeling for his put-upon Norman; John Goodman is always fun; and even the comic relief roles benefit from talents like Anna Kendrick, Casey Affleck, and Christopher Mintz-Plasse.  And yet it's beyond evident that Agatha's Jodelle Ferland is ParaNorman's unrivaled champion, able to turn from horrifying to heartbreaking at a moment's notice.

You'd think, therefore, that she'd have something like a career above the waterline, but Ferland's filmography is all Z-grade horror, all the time, which is fitting and even cute, albeit only in a kind of depressing way.

The script keeps up its end.  Yes, you can figure out where it goes from here.  The real climax of ParaNorman is kind, and hauntingly, almost indescribably beautiful—but you do see it coming, even if, just for a second, while you're taken up in the sweep of it, you can almost imagine Norman dying there atop Agatha's lonely grave.  (Managing this sensation of danger, even momentarily, is frankly an accomplishment beyond all reason for a kid's cartoon.)  But it can surprise you in subtler ways too, with the kind of emotional honesty you couldn't rightly expect from a kid's movie.  ParaNorman's preaching, to be sure, but at least it acknowledges sin: when Agatha asks Norman point-blank whether or not he ever wanted to take revenge on all the people who hurt him, he answers truthfully with a "yes"—and he means it, and in Smit-McPhee's read you can tell he's thought about it, a lot, school-shooter style.  Because, right or wrong, of course he has.  Wouldn't you?

The other key to it is mastery of tone: there's a host of reasons why ParaNorman shouldn't work, and the fact that it's a comedy with the climax of a real horror movie welded onto it is chief amongst them.  But the trick, if there is a trick (and I won't say that its medium—animation—and its genre—kid's adventure—don't do a lot of the heavy lifting here already), is to take the central threat completely seriously.  It's the same trick they used in Evil Dead 2 and (perhaps more relevantly) Ghostbusters.  It's not quite as successful as those in an abiding sense—it is still a "horror-comedy," rather than a "horror film that happens to have jokes and funny characters, and which is partly scary because the supernatural is naturally absurd"—but it certainly gets the job done, never once permitting its humor to actually interfere with the creepier, more grotesque aspects—there's certainly nothing very funny about the psychic visions that plague Norman, and pique our sense of mystery, before he learns the score.  (And yet sometimes ParaNorman does combine its comedy and horror with the best of them: one of its most memorable scenes is also its grossest, and maybe even its edgiest, involving Norman prying that book from his uncle's corpse's mortally-rigored grip.  It does not end well.)

Disregarding the Laika banner, ParaNorman was brought into being by a pair of directors that one would have to no reason to know, Sam Fell and Chris Butler—you'd feel comfortable enough admitting you'd never heard of them, in fact.  (Fell is an Aardman veteran, so this isn't entirely fair; but he's best known otherwise for "directing" the industrial debacle of The Tale of Despereaux, apparently literally over a speakerphone.  Butler, on the other hand, was a storyboard artist for Coraline and Corpse Bride; this was his very first feature co-directorial gig.)  But, here, whether a billionaire's son or the ghost of Henry Selick was guiding them, or they were just geniuses-in-waiting, they accomplished something any animator ought to be immensely proud of.  They threaded a difficult needle—and made it look damned near easy.

Thus it's no real disappointment that Laika has not so far made anything as good as this again; set the bar this high (which I'm awful close to naming the "best stop-motion animated film, ever") and you shouldn't be surprised if you walk under it without even risking the integrity of your forehead.  Truly, it'd be amazing if they went on to make anything that even came close.  So—just guess what they managed to do next.

Score:  10/10

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