For the last 15 years, LAIKA Studios has amused, entertained, amazed, and, in some cases, downright terrified audiences with their stop-motion animation tales that continually place children at the center, offering a chance for audiences old and young to see the world in a new way. In celebration of their 15 years, LAIKA has partnered with Shout! Factory to release special editions of four of their five releases: Coraline (2009), ParaNorman (2012), The Boxtrolls (2014), and Kubo and the Two Strings (2016). Each release, dubbed LAIKA Studios Edition, includes a remastered version of the film, bonus materials new and old, as well as a written foreword by a notable author exploring the respective film. Additionally, to add to the fun, both Coraline and ParaNorman are returning to theaters via Fathom Events on August 24th and November 16th, respectively, so that audiences can reenter each story or experience it for the first time in the theater. Rather than releasing them all at once, Shout! Factory is offering Coraline and The Boxtrolls first on August 31st, with ParaNorman and Kubo coming available on September 14th. In this third of four home release reviews, let’s dive into the world of co-directors Sam Fell (Flushed Away) and Chris Butler (Missing Link) in the second LAIKA release ParaNorman.
The New England town of Blithe Hollow looks like any other as the leaves turn reddish-brown and the wind blows cold. But it’s not like any other town as a secret from the past is about to burst forth from the ground and the only thing that can stop it is an outcast child named Norman Babcock (voiced by Kodi Smith-McPhee). The same thing that makes our reluctant hero a social pariah is also the thing which may prevent the utter destruction of his home: the gift of communicating with the dead.
ParaNorman dropped in 2012 and it remains my favorite piece that LAIKA has released. It’s not just the animation, which holds up incredibly well nearly 10 years later, but Butler’s script as it uses the horror tropes we’ve come to know, flips them, chops them up, and gives us a frequently profound exploration of the destructive power of fear. The film is rated PG, yet I would strongly hesitate to show this film to my particularly sensitive six-year-old, not for the zombies, but for the horrible violence done by the original Puritan villagers. It’s a violence that is expressed painfully in the final act, laying out that the witch we’re told to fear the entire film is nothing more than a scared child who lashes out in pain due to the trauma she endured. By the time we learn this, the audience has already come to think of the zombies as victims, the once fearsome and godly seven reduced to trudging beings, not quite alive and not quite dead. The instinct of the audience is to think of them as the bad guys, but then we learn that this is their curse, to be treated exactly as the witch was…and we kinda agree. Yet, and this is what LAIKA does best, they complicate things with the truth: they are no more deserving of their punishment as the witch was as all are the victims of fear. By leading with compassion, with understanding, and with a sense of reverence for all life, Norman is able to heal Blithe Hollow in a way that moves past the expected and sets his town on a path toward proper healing. ParaNorman can be viewed as a zombie tale, or as I realized on this rewatch, a just-as-adventurous-without-the-terrible-stereotypes Gonnies (1985), but it’s got so much going on under the hood that the depths are hard to ignore and do serve as a wonderful opportunity to chat with one’s family about morals, ethics, and the dangers of fearmongering.
This, of course, doesn’t even touch on the rich tapestry that is the supportive relationship between siblings Neil (voiced by Tucker Albrizzi) and Mitch (voiced by Casey Affleck), how the sexuality of Mitch isn’t treated as anything significant, how bullies will find a way in any age or location to torment their subjects, and how the parent/child divide is only as deep as we allow it to become. (Seriously, Mr. Butler, how did you cram all this in without the 92-minutes feeling rushed in any way, shape, or form?)
If you’re here, however, you likely already know all of the above and just want to know about the new LAIKA Edition from Shout!. Similar to the previous two releases, ParaNorman’s new edition comes with all the previous bonus materials and several new ones. For fans of storyboards, you can watch the entire film via those storyboards, enabling you to experience the film the way the artisans at LAIKA did before putting the puppets to work. If you’re more interested in the technical aspects, the “Revisiting the Puppets” featurettes offer a brief glimpse into six of the central characters from their design to their specific articulation. While all the major players are given a spotlight, I found it strange that the Agatha, a.k.a the witch, (voiced by Jodelle Ferland) isn’t included at all. You get to see some of her design and movement in the longer and broader featurette “Discovering the Characters and Effects of ParaNorman Featuring Never-Before-Seen Test Footage” but that’s it. Especially as the truth of Agatha and Norman’s connection is revealed, that she would be left out of the bonus materials is a tad disappointing. That said, the “Discovering” featurette does provide the expected insights and creative tidbits of the prior two releases, so fans of LAIKA will want to start here before indulging in the other new featurettes. Particularly of note is learning how they combined stop-motion puppetry with, at the time, cutting edge technology to create Blithe Hallow and all the action within.
Even so many years later, ParaNorman possesses a strange power that the other films don’t. It lacks the white-washing Kubo does, the narrative familiarity of Boxtrolls, and manages the perfect balance of surrealism vs. naturalism which Coraline doesn’t always land. It’s a tale of personal growth through trauma, as well as recognition that there can be no peace without facing your trauma so that you can heal. Not to mention it’s a blistering commentary on the United States’s tendency to gloss over our history in order to sell t-shirts, coffee, and keep the kids in line. Yet, despite its complexity, it remains a simple story of an outcast finding his people and living up to his potential. What’s not to love in that.
If you’d like a look at the release before purchasing, here’s a quick walkthrough of what to expect:
ParaNorman LAIKA Studios Edition Special Features:
- NEW Inside LAIKA – Discovering The Characters And Effects Of ParaNorman Featuring Never-Before-Seen Test Footage (12:52)
- NEW Inside LAIKA – Revisiting The Puppets With LAIKA’s Animation Team
- Courtney Babcock (1:26)
- Mitch (1:35)
- Norman Babcock (2:00)
- Neil (1:23)
- Mr. Prenderghast (1:44)
- Zombie Judge (2:09)
- NEW Feature-Length Storyboards (1:32:03)
- NEW Foreword by Bill Desowitz, Crafts & Animation Editor for IndieWire
Previous Bonus Features
- Audio Commentary With Writer/Director Chris Butler And Co-Director Sam Fell
- “Peering Through The Veil”
- Seven (7) Original Featurettes
For more information on the film, head to LAIKA Studios’s official ParaNorman website.
Available on Blu-ray/DVD Combo from Shout! Studios September 14th, 2021.