I follow Laika House, the production company that made the film version of Coraline, on Twitter, so I knew about their new comedy zombie project ParaNorman some time ago. For some reason I thought it was coming out next year, so I was pleasantly surprised when I realized it was opening last Friday. I went out and saw it on Monday and was wowed. It's hilarious, sweet and scary.

Norman is a weird kid. He talks to dead people, but usually only when they talk to him first. He's ostracized at school and picked on by a big guy called Alvin. His own father gives him plenty of guff and his scary bum uncle is stalking him with an ominous message. He's already super stressed when things start to really fall apart in his hometown.

The town of Blithe Hollow makes a lot of its money from its history as a town where a witch trial took place three hundred years ago. Many of the businesses are witch oriented and Norman's class is practicing a pageant that recreates the trial of the witch, which also involves a curse. As Norman is practicing his part his version of reality tears or burns away and he's dumped into another reality, which is quite frightening.

As Norman's life gets stranger and stranger a chubby boy called Neil tries to befriend him. Like Norman, Neil is an outcast, for a whole slew of reasons which he recites to Norman while explaining why bullies aren't as big a deal as they appear. (Neil is possibly my favorite character in the film. He's sweet and funny.) Neil isn't freaked out by Norman's ability to speak to the dead, in fact he is excited at the opportunity to interact with his dog, which passed away recently. Unfortunately not everyone shares Neil's open mind, but when Norman really needs help some surprising allies come to his aid.

ParaNorman was a surprising film in that there was a stronger focus on social issues than I expected. While it is a zombie film and has many of the expected elements of a horror film, it also highlights problems like mob mentalities, profiting from victims and the cycle of abuse, particularly when the abused becomes the abuser.

I've seen a couple of people talking online about whether ParaNorman is appropriate for children, which is kind of funny given that its target audience is kids. It is scary in places and quite loud, but the kids that were sitting around me, some of whom were quite vocal, and some of whom were barely old enough to walk, didn't seem fazed. One very young boy sitting directly behind me (and kicking the seat in his excitement) kept up a running commentary through the whole movie, so I have a very good idea of his thoughts on the filme. He loved it, especially the bike scenes. I saw the film with some college students, who enjoyed it as much as I did.

We saw it as a 2-D film, mostly because I already had a headache and didn't want to suffer through more 3-D induced pain. It worked fine as 2-D, although maybe it was a little blurry in places. But maybe it just seemed that way because I was sitting closer to the screen than usual? It's hard to say.

Before I go I need to discuss the painstaking process behind ParaNorman's animation. While all animation is slow and difficult, stop-motion animation is particularly difficult and requires meticulous work and tons of concentration. According to their website it can take one animator a week to do a few seconds of animation. While some viewers will think that the animation is computer generated they will be wrong. Everything that you see in the film is real and created by hand by the artists working on the film. Vera Brosgol, who wrote the wonderful Anya's Ghost, is one of the many people who worked incredibly hard to make ParaNorman amazing. You can read my review of her book, which won an Eisner recently, here:

And you can watch a short video about the painstaking process here:

This article, which talks about the numbers involved, is staggering. The expressions of the puppets require many, many faces, which utilized a 3-D color printer. In all more than thirty thousand faces went into the complex expressions of the characters. And that's just one small aspect of the entire film, albeit an important part.

Bonus Treat:
This week's bonus treat is the ParaNorman Stop-Motion Zombie Lab, where you can make your own stop-motion film. Hopefully it won't take you as long as it took Laika to make the toilet scene – which was one full year.