"We set out to do a 'poor man's version' of Salem [Massachusetts], but we came to realize Salem is sort of already ... there. Everything we'd think of - bumper sticker, postcard, whatever - to use as a parody actually exists there."
This week's subject on Escape to The Movies is ParaNorman, a stop motion animated horror movie for kids. Set in the fictional New England town of Blithe Hollow (modeled on Salem, Massachusetts), it concerns a misunderstood young boy who can see and speak to ghosts and who becomes the only hope of stopping a zombie outbreak and solving a dark mystery involving the town's local legend of a Colonial-era Witch Trial.
"Our CEO is a brave, brave man. He wants Laika to have a voice that's different. To be challenging. We don't want to be making Pixar movies or DreamWorks movies. Coraline was a major statement."
The film comes courtesy of Laika, an Oregon-based animation house built from the remnants of the once-legendary Will Vinton studios with a mission statement of going against the grain of mainstream theatrical family films. Their first film, Coraline, wowed audiences not only with an inventive use of 3D but with a dark, creepy vibe more in the vein of a grownup horror movie than a safe kid's flick. ParaNorman isn't going for quite the nasty edge that Coraline was (it actually has a more melancholy, somber approach to the supernatural), but it's still a big departure from what many would normally call "family fare." Sure, there've been scary movies for kids before, but often using fairytale mythology or the "safe" iconography of Halloween as its groundings. ParaNorman's playbook is coming more from the realms of Lucio Fulci, John Carpenter and Sam Raimi.
"A lot of family cinema today ... a lot of people play it safe. I don't just mean scares, I mean subject matter. You remember Snow White because it scared you."
Shortly before the film officially opened, I was granted a chance to join a roundtable interview with Sam Fell and Chris Butler, the writer/directors of the film. The quotations in this column are taken from that interview, where Fell and Butler discussed (mostly at the same time, talking over one another and finishing each other's sentences in the familiar manner of close collaborators) their process, inspiration and hopes for the project.
"This kid who doesn't fit in, this kid who gets picked on, what makes him weird makes him wonderful."
"Part of this is that old tradition of ... you have to show children, let them confront and say, "Yes, the monsters are real, but you can defeat them." "
Scary movies for kids are always a risky and difficult prospect, only partially because it can be so hard to determine where the line is. The definition of scary, especially in the visual sense, can change a lot as we age, and not always in the ways one might expect. I remember once, during my retail days, a parent coming to me to inquire whether The Incredible Hulk movie would scare her son (he looked about six, had recognized "Dah HULK!" on the cover and would not put it down.) I actually had to stop and think on it - my ultimate conclusion being "Well, that's up to you ma'am, but honestly I think The Hulk is scarier for adults than kids. Adults relate to the scary/sad part of what happens to him - to kids, it's kind of just a guy who turns into Shrek when he's mad or to fight bad guys."
"We tried to ... it has a PG Certificate, it's a family film. As many people as we talk to, reactions are different. Some five-year-olds go to see The Dark Knight, some ten-year-olds are scared by this. I think it's up to ... mum and dad, right?"
The point is, children and adults are wired differently. We don't relate to the world in the same way, and it colors both our sense of what scares us and also what the reaction to it should be. This is, partially, the running subtext of the film. By the time the story begins, Norman has been able to see and converse with ghosts for so long it's both part of his daily routine and a difference that he's now resigned to. He's tried to tell people in the past, and it's made him a target for bullies (while ostracized by everyone else) at school. More problematically, it's strained his relationship with his well-meaning parents. After a particularly humiliating public experience (in the movie proper, Norman's problems have escalated to include horrifying prophetic visions) he laments to his mother that he believes his father is actually afraid of him. "No," she tries to explain, "He's afraid for you."