The big thing about Paranorman is that it is not anywhere nearly as interested and indebted to childhood nightmares as Coraline, nor is it as interested in being formally revolutionary. Laika’s second film is more a childhood tall tale, a campfire story for lost souls. It’s easy then to argue that the film is less radical than the company’s first film, and in fact, it is less radical. But if it doesn’t delight in demolishing our senses with demonic energy quite like its predecessor, it’s as committed to exploring our souls. For Paranorman is ultimately a work about childhood trauma, a substantive and serious-minded reflection of how Halloween glee serves as an outlet for social outcasts lost amidst the doldrums of everyday existence. And if the film isn’t as aesthetically wondrous as Coraline, it sees Laika expand their technical chops and nuance the sheer expressive motion and feeling of their motion capture for more subtle means. The end result is a film that feels very deeply, and haunts us as it does so.
Norman (Kodi Smit-McPhee), the film’s main character, is not a traditional animated hero, but his scrappy, off-kilter, nervous energy wins us over with an endearing warmness absent from Coraline. He’s not designed to look appealing (nor is any character in the film, incidentally), but feeling seeps through nonetheless, through his scrawny, angular lines and disturbed, lonely sighs. He’s a pensive character, all interested in internal mournfulness and self-reflection rather than external adventure. And he talks to dead people, not necessarily because they want to haunt him, but because they’re bored and to a world that finds him a social outcast, he’s as much a ghost as anyone else. The film’s plot, set in motion when Norman gets just a bit too interested in the going’s on around his town, plays out more as a respite for his loneliness than anything else. Paranorman is a family film, and its undeniably sweet too, but there’s a low-key heartbreak at the core that never quite removes its way from your soul. It sticks to you, and has a mood or two while doing it.
More than anything though, Paranorman sees Laika’s love of classical horror imagery left almost undiluted for children, only here it’s not the delirium of Coraline but the intentionally mundane chills and spooks of suburbia gone wild. It’s a campfire story, in the sense that it’s out to spook with a grin rather than a grimace, and it explores decades of imagery and ghoulish noises for its own purposes with a rather loopy sense of chaos, especially when things threaten to go a bit too off-the-rails with the film’s energy. What saves it from seeming light and airy, though, is the film’s depth and weight, captured most profoundly in the myriads of details peppering the frames that characterize the people and ethos of the town of Blithe Hollow without the film having to stop to confine this exploration through narrative dialogue. Paranorman uses its texture, its very existence in the real world (as stop-motion) to live and breathe with literal screen depth and detail like few other films. As the film is ultimately about the history of Blithe Hollow, and the town’s root in Puritanical witchery, that the film tells that town’s admittedly less than wonderful story through very much wonderful visual means is its chief pleasure.
It also has a lot of fun while telling this story, flying high on animation that is increasingly able to zing around us with fun and energetic glee. There’s a certain bittersweet quality hanging over the film, but it doesn’t keep it from knowing more in-the-moment joys. It has an immense amount of fun with Halloween tidings and the lovingly-rendered stand-in for Salem at its core, more-so than any film in the past several years, and there’s much to connect with for lovers of the season’s childlike mischief. Its joy is tempered somewhat by the maturity brought with a narrative focus (there is for instance, a moment of social progressivism in the film so wonderful for how it is tossed-off rather than made the issue-of-the-day, as though it is just part of this world’s everyday life, that it reflects a more subtle form of radicalism). But the film is still committed to the eye of a child; it’s merely a child who occupies a slightly more realist world this time out. Paranorman continues to establish Laika’s aesthetic in a meaningful sense, to give them a voice absent other animated film companies. If it’s less singular than Coraline, and less willing to play around in the Wild West of new filmic techniques, it’s still a cohesive delight with untold depth. And in today’s world of low-brow animation, that’s mighty special indeed.
It’s no secret that The Boxtrolls is a bit of a critical disappointment for animation golden-child Laika. And in some sense, it’s deserving of the criticism. While Coraline was a fractured, barn-burning, formally revolutionary wunderkid and Paranorman a somewhat radical exploration of childhood torment, The Boxtrolls is a lark. More than that, it is self-consciously a lark, not given remotely to anything in the way of thoughtfulness or serious intellect. It is essentially a “gripping yarn” of a child’s adventure story, entirely pleasant and entirely willing to be nothing more than pleasant. For this reason, everything that limits it from memorable status also keeps it from ever growing leaden in its pure desire to entertain. It’s fluffy and doesn’t have a caustic bone in its body. That’s something of a shame, of course, but there’s nothing wrong with a bit of fluff from time to time. If The Boxtrolls is a minor film from a major company, it’s no less amusing and cheerful for that fact.
Perhaps this is Laika unwinding, realizing the weight on themselves and taking it in stride with their most light-weight offering yet. The narrative, about a boy (Eggs, voiced by Isaac Hempstead-Wright) stolen from his home in the village of Cheesebridge by a group of inoffensive little creatures known as the Boxtrolls, has a certain Aardman Animations quality to its distinctly British sensibility (where-as the company’s first two films were much more Burton-esque). There is some conflict – the town very much has the wrong opinion of the creatures, thinking they’ve killed the child rather than taken him in, and a gentlemen-hunter from the bourgeoisie sees killing every last one of the creatures as a fast-lane to the whitehats (the aristocracy) of the world. When the town ruler’s daughter Winnie (Elle Fanning) stumbles upon the creatures and the boy and realizes things are quite a bit different from the town’s preconceptions, the two youth set out to do a little day saving. But insofar as this is conflict, its of the distinctly old-school pomp-and-circumstance-and-loopy-energy variety.
The film largely stands on two legs. The first is its comic sensibility, which is foregrounded here to good effect. It’s all fairly light and genial, matching slapstick (ably abetted by the film’s second leg, but more on this later) and a certain Python-esque comic rapport dealing in some of the Pythons’ favorite subjects: hats, cheese, and British stuffiness, among others. It’s fairly dry, mostly low-key, and consistently chuckle-inducing if not rib tickling. And matched to the film’s generally cheery tone, it manages something quite a bit delightful when so many other films drown on the need to be self-serious.
But the real star of the show is Laika’s animation. This is easily the least aesthetically challenging of their three features, largely because it is the least interested in using animation to break down the barriers of storytelling and scream out at the audience. But it’s not merely functional either, and on a technical level it’s their most fully formed work by a country mile. The character motion down to the littlest details is greatly enhanced this time out, and the facial expression in particular does wonders for giving these characters an expressive, lived-in quality that hits home when the lack of narrative ambition does not (Laika’s animation technique, printing computer-generated faces on a 3-D printer and pasting them on clay figures set up in diorama and filmed in stop-motion, is as stunningly effective as it is time-consuming). Elsewhere, the film is by far the densest of Laika’s three films, with Cheesebridge largely given earthy place and off-kilter character due to a proper multitude of little details scattered all about the world, details the film doesn’t insist upon but which simply exist as part of the background. It’s a lovingly realized film – lovingly realized for a slightly tepid purpose – but lovingly realized nonetheless.