One of the most interesting categories every year at the Oscars is the Best Animated Feature. Many think that it has always been a Pixar-owned category, but the brief 11 year history proves otherwise. Films such as Shrek, Spirited Away, and Rango have defeated Pixar's mighty reign on the family entertainment category. With Brave undoubtedly getting a nomination this year, I am rooting for another strange little feature. One that actually shows ambition and deserves the statue: ParaNorman.
The story is simple: Norman (Kodi Smith-McPhee) can see the dead and with the help of a homeless man (John Goodman), he discovers just what he needs to do to get rid of his pests. The rest is an inspired homage to Scooby Doo, Where Are You? and old school horror in ways that make Super 8 look cheap and uninspired. This is without a doubt a lot more fun than Brave and also way more innovative in a new approach to a familiar plot. As far as animated movies go, there doesn't seem to be too much competing for the sheer level of joy you get out of this film. In fact, if it isn't even nominated, I will be heartbroken.
For those wondering if it won't get nominated because it is in the vein of horror, you are sadly mistaken. In the history of the category, there have been numerous nominees, including Corpse Bride, Monster House, and Laika Studio's previous effort Coraline. Of those, there have been four stop motion animation nominees and one winner: Wallace and Gromit: Curse of the Were-Rabbit.
To say the least, stop motion hasn't had it easy when it comes to the Oscars. They have usually been butted out by the merging and (in comparison) more convenient CGI films that have made most years seem like a competition between Dreamworks Animation and Pixar. So what has Dreamworks offered us this year? Madagascar 3: Europe's Most Wanted and the upcoming Rise of the Guardians. Both of these (though it is too early to confirm on the latter) feel like the blockbuster films that keep the studio afloat while they work on sequels to the nominated films like Kung Fu Panda and How to Train Your Dragon.
How does this bode for ParaNorman? If anything, it has the clear distinction of looking different than any of the other animated films. Laika Studios use a mix of CGI and stop motion to flesh out the action and bring a sense of wonder to one of animation's oldest and most meticulous forms. The fact that it was able to also make it into an engaging, fast paced tale simultaneously just makes the achievement more awe-inspiring. Just look at how long it takes to make the figure:
Impressive, isn't it? That has been something that has gotten me every time I see a stop motion picture lose. Sure, CGI isn't that easy to perfect, but it still seems to be more accessible. It is also a shame that we probably won't see motion capture animation flicks like The Adventures of Tintin get some love because... well, these are all films that move the genre into new and interesting directions. Even if they are not the best, there needs to be some level of respect for them. Of course, this whole post could be void if it turns out that Wreck-It Ralph turns out to be more than another Disney Animated Studios film that feels like second-tier Pixar (though Bolt wasn't terrible).
However, what else makes ParaNorman a winner? Besides the animation and the pacing, we must look at the story. True, there hasn't been a single film with zombies that stood a chance of winning, but there is more. Read into the subtext, in which we explore the life of an awkward child who feels different and wants to be heard. This is a pretty common experience, and the way that it is handled makes it feel inspired and new.
It explores the themes of adolescents by exaggerating the situation to show how far adults will go not to listen to you. They will fight zombies before you can tell them that you are feeling blue. The themes in this movie are deep and when it comes to the third act that sees Norman talking it out with a young girl, it feels like a twist. When it could have gone bigger, it settled for something simpler and therefore more effective. This movie isn't perfect, but it manages to carry the tone and themes without losing focus.
Unless I am missing out on a Studio Ghibli film (I still need to see the Secret World of Arietty), no film has really come close to being this ambitious. Honestly, Brave comes close, though in a very tame way. It takes the themes of family, notably a mother-daughter relationship, and explores them in what I feel is one of the studio's more challenging ways. The results are more hit and miss, but I applaud Pixar for at least trying something new. However, this is also where it suffers. While Merida (Kelly MacDonald) is an engaging lead, it feels like a slight insult that the big sell on this feature was that it had a female lead.
I know that ParaNorman is not really any better in that regards. After all, how many young males have lead movies on average in a year? However, it is the supporting cast that makes it feel different. This movie humanizes zombies, adds vulnerability to witches, and makes crazy homeless people seem like helpful guides. There's even an attempt to be progressive by making a character announce that he was gay. It doesn't feel too broad to be an insult, which only adds to the movie's ability to acknowledge that the times are changing and social faux pas are disappearing. If anything, this film manages to have set the pace for weirder kid's movies with more of a diverse palate.
Overall, ParaNorman deserves to win because it actually feels like it is trying to be a unique movie with something positive to say. With plenty of exciting turns, it is another great moment in Laika Studios' productions and makes them one of the more appealing companies working in animation today. Even if they have only completed two features, it is time for them to get recognition. At very least, I am asking for a nomination, though so far I haven't found anything to argue for the top prize. It is an impressive journey and well worth your time.
Do you agree that ParaNorman is the best animated feature so far this year? Should it at least get a nomination? Am I undermining the fact that Brave will probably win because it is Pixar?