Sam Fell and Chris Butler on the social commentary and hybrid tech of 'ParaNorman'
It's easy to see why Sam Fell and Chris Butler's "ParaNorman" from the LAIKA animation studio ended up reaping the most critical prizes throughout the film awards season. At a time when the issue of bullying is very much in the social dialogue, the film's themes resonate and elevate it from the ghetto of "mere entertainment" that animated feature films can often struggle to escape.
The idea of what would become "ParaNorman" first came to Butler 16 years ago. It was just the superficial spark of "how cool would it be to make a stop-motion zombie movie for kids?" But the more he mulled over the genre and why it had always been so compelling to him, the more he realized there was a thematic draw there.
"The zombie movies that worked best, and certainly my favorites, are the ones that have social commentary," Butler says, "that use zombies as a metaphor to say something about a human condition. And so it made sense to me that if I was going to do a zombie movie for kids that I should try and address an issue that affects kids. I think that was like a fundamental part of the movie right from the start. It's part of the fabric of it."
Butler mulled over ideas of tolerance and not judging a book by its cover as he went, but he notes that bullying, while very much in the media these days, has always been around. And so he tried to work all of that into his slowly percolating story. He would work on it when he could and it would sometimes be years before he'd go back to it. There was something about this idea of "John Carpenter meets John Hughes" that kept it alive for him as something worthwhile. "I think all that time I was just expecting somebody else to do it, to be honest," he says. "So I was quite pleased that they didn't!"
Meanwhile, he made his way to LAIKA as a storyboard supervisor on Henry Selick's "Coraline" after working on films like "Tarzan II" and Tim Burton's "Corpse Bride." It was at the Portland studio that he met his future co-director, Sam Fell, who stopped by to have a look at all the things they had going on.
"Chris's project really stood out to me and a lot of the references, all the things he was talking about, really clicked with me," Fell says. "The story resonates with all of us, with myself and with the whole crew, really, because it's a story about an outsider, someone that didn't quite fit in. I think a lot of people end up in animation because they have some kind of notion that they want to do something different with their lives."
And beyond just the themes, it was Butler's various movie references that really clicked, too. In addition to the two Johns, Carpenter and Hughes, Butler "was talking about schlocky kind of zombie stuff, talking about Dario Argento and Scooby-Doo and early Spielberg," Fell says. "All of the things in that recipe really appealed to me."
At a time when companies like Pixar Animation Studio are brand-building around production identity, the collective screenwriting process, etc., LAIKA's identity isn't as defined for the public yet. And as a still young-and-growing studio, that's understandable. "It's a little bit more like a renegade outfit," Fell says of animator Travis Knight's company. "LAIKA is fresher. It's a very young-feeling place. It was quite open to getting behind someone like Chris, who had an idea and worked it out, and pushing him forward."
Butler says at first people may have looked at LAIKA as "the studio that makes the scary movies for kids," but he believes it's much more than that. "I think what people are starting to see is that we are making stories that the other studies aren't," he says. "You can't mistake 'ParaNorman' for a DreamWorks movie or a Disney movie. It has its own feel; it has its own sensibility. And it's also very different from 'Coraline.' I think the point of view for the studio is that there are so many different stories you can tell with this medium. Animation is not a genre; it's a medium. There are so many different stories that have not yet been told and we can maybe address that balance."
Butler also appreciates that with only a handful of films under its belt, the company is doing well with the critical press also. As noted, "ParaNorman" has collected more critics awards for Best Animated Feature Film than any other contender in the Oscar race. As much as Pixar gets attention for offering critically hailed work, LAIKA, which recently announced the start of production on its latest feature, is right there in the same boat.
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