ParaNorman’s Oscar Loss

Last night, the locally-made zombie movie—and the whole stop-motion subgenre—lost the Oscar.

"ParaNorman" and LAIKA go for the gold!/Courtesy LAIKA

“ParaNorman” and LAIKA go for the gold!/LAIKA

On January 10, my Facebook was abuzz as former colleagues from Portland-based animation company LAIKA volleyed congrats following the 5 am announcement that their film, “ParaNorman”, was an Oscar nominee.

This wasn’t LAIKA’s first bid for the golden man; the company’s premier feature film “Coraline” won a nom but not the prize in 2010. Lately, Portland-filmed TV efforts have similarly come up short:  “Portlandia” and “Grimm” both earned Emmy noms but lost the prize in 2012, and “Leverage” was overlooked entirely. It’s probably safe to assume that at this point, crews, actors, and animators all over the city of Portland, as well as the Oregon Governor’s Office of Film and Television, were pining for a national win.

Unfortunately, “Norman” lost out last night to Disney’s “Brave”—one of the few non-stop-motion films in its category.

Why stop-mo was ripe for a win

The art form of stop-motion animation holds a unique position among film disciplines. Paradoxically, it uses cutting-edge 3-D printing (or “rapid prototype”) technology, yet delivers a post-mass-production handcrafted aesthetic, a la Etsy and Destination DIY. Stop-motion may be the only place where, like a lion and a lamb, the robot enthusiast and the knitter/tole-painter/dollmaker walk peacefully side by side.

Last honored by the Academy in 2006 (“Wallace and Gromit: Curse of the Were-Rabbit”), the discipline has since been snubbed in favor of a string of computer-animated titles. Even “Fantastic Mr. Fox” (with Clooney and Streep, no less) couldn’t finagle Oscar’s favor. Just saying: it’s high time stop-mo got mo’ Academy love.

That being said, “ParaNorman” had plenty of competition in its category from fellow stop-mo films. Tim Burton (who broke big co-creating “The Nightmare Before Christmas”—a perennially hot property that LAIKA now owns—with “Coraline”‘’s Henry Selick)was nominated for “Frankenweenie,” a monster 3-D flick like Norman but with a black-and-white presentation a la old Hollywood horror. Burton’s name recognition and prior nominations could have made“Weenie” a shoo-in—but his loss may have been penance for 2009 computer-animated critical dud “9.”

“The Pirates! Band of Misfits” seemed a lesser threat to “Norman” because its aesthetics do not cohere. Cartoonish character design clashes with hyper-realistic sets (a mistake never made by the consistently cartoonish “Wallace and Gromit” series, but woefully evident in long-dead Will Vinton/LAIKA TV effort “The PJ’s.”)

All the discussion of category competitors aside, as any good workout coach will tell you, you’re only ever competing against yourself.

Here’s what LAIKA’s “ParaNorman” had that LAIKA’s “Coraline” lacked:

A brand-new director

“ParaNorman” began as a twinkle in the eye of “Coraline” storyboard artist Chris Butler, who pitched his zombie tale to “Coraline” director Henry Selick while Selick was still at the helm. It was a long shot. A gutsy move. And it ended up launching the charming, witty Brit’s directing career.

Though “ParaNorman”‘s more experienced co-director Sam Fell bears equal production credit, it’s Butler’s breakthrough that’s getting media mention in places like the Huffington Post, and that seemed most likely to serve as Oscar bait. Pile on the fact that puppet character Norman parallels Butler—fighting his way from the fringes into mainstream acceptance. How could the Academy resist this compelling narrative that Butler is already so adept at recounting?

A redemptive plot

In Neil Gaiman’s “Coraline,” the hero and title character is a young only child, and the villain is her evil “other mother,” a soulless but seductive copy of her real mom with inexplicable buttons for eyes. The Other Mother lures the youngster through a door that may as well be a looking glass, into a souped-up version of reality that at first seems fanciful, but turns out to be a trap. Though a talking cat briefly speculates on the Other Mother’s motives for tricking and threatening “Coraline” (Perhaps she wants someone to love? Or something to EAT?), we never do learn what makes her tick—or, for that matter, how this villainous alter-ego relates to “Coraline”‘s real mother. We only see her grow into an increasingly sinister and more powerful spectre, culminating in a kill-or-be-killed dilemma for “Coraline.” Hence, Neil Gaiman’s plot proves boilerplate good-versus-evil.

In “ParaNorman,” writer (and “”Coraline”” crew alum) Chris Butler starts there and then goes deeper, following feuds to mutually well-meaning sources, and exploring the redemptive worldview of good-versus-misunderstood. Lead character Norman, a reluctant boy liaison for his town’s undead, is first persecuted by his peers and then attacked by an angry mob when his town confronts a zombie invasion. Norman is forced to negotiate peace between zombies and townspeople while tracing the whole uproar back to its source: a righteously indignant little girl ghost who’s bent on eternally punishing the town’s zombies (former Puritans) for having executed her in a witch trial. Bravely walking into a supernatural firestorm, Norman explains to the girl that her continued campaign is now punishing the innocent, and the only resolution is reconciliation.

Meanwhile, the Puritan zombies recall a classic, complex monster model: Frankenstein’s monster. Reanimated against their will, alienated from yet fascinated by the living, appearing ghoulish but meaning no harm, they portray lost souls awaiting Norman’s direction, which is ultimately “say you’re sorry.” And as soon as they do, they are free. More’s the pity that both Burton and Butler riff on Frankenstein at the same time—must be something in the water. (Algae?)

In summary, the plot of “Coraline” teaches us: If it looks evil, it’s probably REALLY evil. If it seems too good to be true, it’s probably terrible. The plot of “ParaNorman”? Hey, Monsters, hold your fire and let’s all talk.

Pixar’s “UP” snatched the Oscar from “Coraline” in 2010 despite the two films’ uncanny similarities (both were set around iconic old houses in a bohemian Oregon town, each featured one child who ventures out alone to meet the weird neighbor(s)…). I suspect an obvious explanation: “UP” was more…uplifting. The old man in “UP” who initially gives the little kid grief, lightens up over time and turns into a hero. And general faith in humanity wins the day.

A generous helping of wabi-sabi

When I visited the set of “ParaNorman” last spring, my gracious former co-workers ushered me around the production floor, showing off their favorite creations: A shoebox-sized ‘80′s-style van with orange and yellow stripes down the side. A plum-sized backpack with a real metal zipper, decorated with patches and keychains on mini caribiners. Even the dirt was a point of pride, having been formulated with different mixtures of sand, corn syrup, and mineral oil until it reached the perfect texture to hold up under lighting and handling.

Watching these professional elves make a mini world gave me a wave of nostalgia from my first “Coraline” visit—but also a distinct whiff of difference. In the rigging department, I saw puppet skeletons that herky-jerked on elliptical axles. I saw “face-maps” pocked with uneven freckles, age spots, and wrinkles. Was one of Norman’s ears slightly higher than the other? Sure enough. These “flaws” were no accident. “The rule is, nothing is symmetrical,” one artist explained.

For LAIKA, this is a new epiphany—in fact, it goes against the “Coraline” grain. Henry Selick (who went on to join, then leave, Disney) was legendarily fastidious, rendering his film so tidy that many casual fans mistook it for computer animation. “It’s too perfect to have been touched by human hands,” many assumed. But new advances in 3-D printing have since made the medium easier to rough up—and “ParaNorman” took full advantage to create a more organic look. Fell and Butler’s British roots may have also played a role, as British media has long embraced actors’ quirk where American counterparts tend to favor more uniform beauty.

Woulda, Coulda…

A win would have be a great way for the Academy to validate LAIKA’s continued (and improving) efforts, while ushering its fresh (post-Selick) talent to the fore. While household name Tim Burton continues to cut an unforgettable fringe-cult figure beside wife Helena Bonham Carter , a win for “Norman” and Butler could have signified that the growing genre of stop-mo can yet accommodate more comers.

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