Coraline animators Laika are returning to the world of stop-motion horror with ParaNorman, a film that blends cartoon zombies with '80s-style coming of age comedy. The creators and actors held a panel today at San Diego Comic-Con to talk about the movie's influences, and why this movie will look like no other stop-motion film.
Co-director and screenplay writer Chris Butler, co-director Sam Fell, producer Travis Knight, and actors Kodi Smit-McPhee (Norman), Anna Kendrick (Norman's sister Courtney), and Christopher Mintz-Plasse (Alvin the school bully) were on hand at the San Diego Convention Center's massive Hall H to screen footage from ParaNorman and talk a bit more about the film.
Butler says that he has been writing ParaNorman off and on for 16 years. Beyond just making a zombie film for kids, ParaNorman is a love letter to the films Butler grew up watching, movies like The Goonies, Ghostbusters, and some horror films that he admits he probably shouldn't have been watching. For the Laika staff, ParaNorman turned into a "gumbo" of their childhood loves and movie obsessions: John Hughes coming of age movies, Amblin's '80s adventure films, and George Romero's zombies.
Laika is billing ParaNorman as a highly kinetic action movie. Its zombies might shamble, but the movie features car chases, explosions, and swiftly moving storms. Its town of Blithe Hollow is fully constructed (Kendrick noted that there are several small adorable details in the town that don't make it into the film). And with the advancement of 3D printing, the crew was able to get finer, more detailed acting out of its stop-motion dolls.
The first clip shown during the panel introduces us to Norman and Alvin. Norman is trying to perform a ritual that will prevent the dead from rising from their graves, but is interrupted by Alvin. When Norman spots spooky glowing storm clouds floating in the sky, he realizes that he has failed, and soon a crew of zombies are bursting from their graves, much to Norman and Alvin's terror. This was described as the most intense scene in the film (this is a kids' film, after all), but the character design of the zombies manages to make the sight of them goofy without going too far into gross or cheesy. These aren't fresh, bloody zombies, but old, sallow zombies with aged and torn clothes (there's even a zombie wearing a pilgrim buckle hat) and the occasional missing limb (though no two zombies are missing exactly the same parts). The gauzy clouds, strong use of purple and green, and details like ornately carved gravestones evoke the sense of a particularly pretty spooky movie without getting too frightening.
It's in the second clip we saw that ParaNorman's influences are strongly felt. Norman, Courtney, and Alvin are riding in a van driven by dumb jock Mitch (Casey Affleck) and accompanied by Norman's chubby pal Neil (Tucker Albrizzi). The van is speeding away as all the kids, obviously freaked out, are bickering, assigning blame, and trying (and failing) to figure out what to do next, while a zombie claws at them from the roof of the van. There's some clear Scooby-Doo love there, but with a twist. "When I watched Scooby-Doo," explained Butler, "I thought, 'It doesn't make sense. These people wouldn't be friends with each other.'" Instead, he imagined, they would bicker. It creates a sense, the panel said, returning to their thoughts on genre mashup, "The Breakfast Club meets The Fog." In figuring out the physical performance of the kids, the Laika staff looked largely to the cast of Freaks and Geeks.
When one tiny girl dressed in a Rarity hoodie melted the panelists hearts by asking why they made the zombies so scary, Sam Fell admitted, "Later we find out they're actually quite sad."