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13 Things We Learned From the ‘ParaNorman’ Commentary

From 2012, here’s a rundown of all that we heard and learned of interest while listening to the commentary for the Laika animated feature.
Paranorman Group
By  · Published on November 29th, 2012

Welcome to Commentary Commentary, where we sit and listen to filmmakers talk about their work, then share the most interesting parts. In this edition, Rob Hunter checks out the ParaNorman commentary.

The commentary tracks on animated films are destined to be different beasts than their live-action cousins if only because there’s little opportunity for onscreen performers to contribute. Sure the voice actors can join in, but they’re a minor element of production most likely severely lacking in anecdotes. So that leaves listeners with filmmakers unused to performing directly to an audience.

But that doesn’t mean they’re not entertaining.

ParaNorman is the only release I recommended buying in this week’s Blu-ray/DVD column, and it’s not difficult to see why. The makers of Coraline have returned with a funny, Amblin-like tale that finds real heart and drama in a story about a young boy who can see and speak with the dead. Norman is shunned by pretty much everyone, but when an evil witch’s curse threatens to raise the dead and destroy the town he becomes an unlikely and unexpected hero.

Please note, there are spoilers below, so if you haven’t seen the movie yet skip this and go read my ParaNorman set visit instead.

ParaNorman (2012)

Commentators: Chris Butler (writer, co-director) and Sam Fell (co-director)

1. The opening image and scene were meant to grab the audience’s attention since the first act takes a while setting up the characters. It’s a schlocky horror film complete with a gelatinous brain on the floor and a damsel being attacked by a zombie, but it’s shot like an Ed Wood production. “We really had to push the crew to do bad work,” says Fell. “The editor didn’t want to cut it badly.”

2. Grandma (Elaine Stritch) is meant to be the voice of wisdom in the film, an exceptional task for a dead old lady, and while most folks won’t realize it until the end, she actually reveals the answer to the impending danger in her very first scene.

3. Fell mentions that their introduction to Norman’s (Kodi Smit-McPhee) family is an homage to Steven Spielberg’s 80s films that always introduced their slightly dysfunctional families in the kitchen. A quick look at IMDB confirms that only E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial matches that description. Of course, if “Spielberg films” is opened up to include all things Amblin then the comment makes a lot more sense.

4. The singular compromise they made was in cutting an early variation on Mr. Prenderghast’s (John Goodman) introduction. The finished version shows him hacking and coughing as he reaches for some medication, but the filmmakers originally had him reaching for a cigarette. They decided that would be frowned upon in a children’s movie these days.

5. The film is loaded with homage, including name references (Clive Barker, Tobe Hooper and Day of the Dead’s Bub) and visual ones (John Carpenter’s Halloween, Sam Raimi’s camerawork from Evil Dead, Scooby-Doo meets John Hughes) but there are also a handful of inside jokes. Two, for some unexplained reason, involve the directors’ names sewed into Mr. Prenderghast’s and Mitch’s respective underwear. Both directors claim they’ve seen no residuals from the product placement.

6. The bathroom scene where Mr. Prenderghast appears out of the toilet took over a year to animate from beginning to end. It was the work of one animator too. As Fell says, “Poor, poor Payton Curtis.”

7. Grandma’s ghostly wardrobe was up for debate early on, but the final choice was ultimately inspired by Estelle Getty’s tracksuit from The Golden Girls.

8. The scene where Norman visits Mr. Prenderghast’s house was meant as a complete haunted house experience, and Butler notes that he was actually somewhat scared by the teddy bear with insects bursting out from its mouth. Fell describes the image as more “Eastern European surrealist disturbing kind of stuff.”
9. The chase scene was incredibly difficult for various reasons. “If you think about this van racing down these roads then the roads physically have to be built,” says Butler. “And we had a road that was seventy feet long I think, and that, of course, is flanked on either side by hand-made trees, hand-made road, and the van has to be animated by hand with all these characters inside it.”

10. When they first set out to design the chase scene they brought in storyboard artist Martin Asbury for input. “We wanted him because he worked on a bunch of live-action movies and had done a ton of chase sequences in Bond movies, and we thought that was a great approach to shooting this to just go all out and see what we can achieve.”

11. The original mob scenes, both in script and storyboard forms, were determined to be a bit too heavy with their guns and real weapons being far from funny. “I think what we were trying to say with the mob is that they’re a bunch of idiots. So we were always playing that, how goofy can we make them so that they are funny but they also have to be a threat.” If you’ve seen the movie you know they’ve succeeded in making the mob, the living people, far more threatening than either the zombies or the witch.

12. The film’s major twist, that the wicked witch was actually a little girl, was acknowledged by everyone who read the script as unusually dramatic and “not your typical animated fare.” They were worried for a long time that the events were maybe too complicated for younger audiences, but as a not-so-young viewer, I’m incredibly thankful for that as the scene adds an unexpected but welcome weight in a kid’s film.

13. Aggie’s (Jodelle Ferland) supernatural reveal involved a “fantastic marriage” of effects techniques from physical puppets to blown ink to light bulbs to CGI. The filmmakers love the character and her appearance and regret being unable to talk about her while doing press for the film. They wanted to keep the element of surprise, and they succeeded. It’s an impressive feat in the age of the internet that the twist wasn’t spoiled in advance.

Best in Commentary

Butler: “Now this scene [Norman’s sister (Anna Kendrick) meeting Neil’s older, muscular, topless brother (Casey Affleck)] is my personal favorite from the whole movie. It didn’t change very much at all from its initial concept which was, you know it was referencing all these teen horror movies, you know, obviously, there’s teen nudity. I just remember how tricky this was to keep decent.”
Fell: “Yeah, there definitely were versions of that framing that weren’t very decent.”
Butler: “No, no.”

Butler: “We see Salma (Hannah Noyes) here in her bedroom at home, and again this goes back to the Scooby-Doo idea. I thought if you brought Scooby-Doo to its logical conclusion they wouldn’t actually invite Velma along. They would just call her when they needed stuff Googled. That’s basically where Salma’s character came from, she was just this person that they didn’t even see fit to include her in the adventure, but they do call her when they need information.”

Final Thoughts

The commentary from Butler and Fell is an easy listen, but it’s pretty short on anecdotes and otherwise exciting tidbits. The film is a wonder of animation styles both old and new, and the physical nature of the puppet creations is equally fascinating, but they barely touch the making-of specifics. Fans of those aspects should check out the disc’s multiple featurettes (as well as my set visit) for more details on the rigging, faceplates, and the use of 3D printing.

The other topic missing from the commentary, and one I was really hoping they would comment upon, is the reveal at the film’s very end that Neil’s brother, Mitch, is actually gay. It’s non-consequential to the story but offers closure and a laugh in regard to Norman’s sister’s efforts to woo Mitch over, and it literally happens in the last few minutes of the film, but some parents have complained that a gay character has no place in a children’s film. It would have been nice to see Butler and Fell give those fools a verbal slapdown.

ParaNorman is a fantastic little film and easily the year’s best children’s movie, and it deserves to be watched and appreciated by kids of all ages. The Blu-ray and DVD offer some fantastically detailed looks behind the scenes and highlight all of the creativity and hard work that goes into making a stop-motion animated film. It’s fascinating stuff and highly recommended.

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Rob Hunter has been writing for Film School Rejects since before you were born, which is weird seeing as he's so damn young. He's our Chief Film Critic and Associate Editor and lists 'Broadcast News' as his favorite film of all time. Feel free to say hi if you see him on Twitter @FakeRobHunter.