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Kendrick, filmmakers inspired by spirit of 'ParaNorman'

By Tim Lammers, StrictlyCinema.com
Published On: Aug 30 2012 03:24:17 PM CDT
Updated On: Aug 16 2012 09:00:29 AM CDT
Anna Kendrick Paranorman cast

Anna Kendrick voices Courtney, right, in "ParaNorman"

Whether you believe in the paranormal or not, the new stop-motion animated film "ParaNorman" in a strange way reflects the world it portrays.

That's because for months on end, artisans from Laika Animation Studios painstakingly put their hearts and souls into moving their characters one frame at a time -- and ultimately, when the film is completed, the characters all come to life like mystical spirits. The animation is so convincing, in fact, that the characters almost have a heart and soul as most live-action characters do.

"I think that spirit comes completely from the passion that the animators have for the characters, and that completely shines through these inanimate objects," voice star Anna Kendrick told me in a recent interview.

"The animators don't look at them as inanimate because they literally live with these objects while working on the film. They're people to them."

Sam Fell, who co-directed the film with screenwriter Chris Butler, believes the actors share a big part of the credit in bringing the characters to life.

"There are a number of pieces that go into it, like the voice actors, who record the dialogue first," Fell told me. "So when you get somebody like Anna Kendrick, you're getting a great actor, and in this case, a lot of great acting comes through the use of her voice. There's soul in the voice."

On the flip side, Fell added, the animators in some ways have to become actors.

"They bring the other half of the performance. They put their soul into it, too. They're not just operators. A lot of them act out the actions first to bring the right tone to the movement," said Fell, who previously directed "The Tale of Despereaux" and "Flushed Away." "They get the idea inside of their minds, and then they go back through the motions as they move the characters along in a scene, which may take two, three or four weeks to do."

Opening in theaters Friday in 2D and 3D, "ParaNorman" tells the story of Norman (voice of Kodi Smith-McPhee), a misunderstood middle schooler in a small town who has the uncanny gift of seeing ghosts and talking with the dead.

The problem is, Norman's gift is like everyone else's curse, and pretty much everyone in his school and in the town -- including his family and annoying teenage cheerleader sister, Courtney (Kendrick) -- treats him like an outcast. Fortunately, he has found a new friend in Neil (Tucker Albrizzi), who, like Norman, is a target of bullies in school.

The timing of the friendship couldn't be more perfect, though, since the anniversary of a centuries-old curse is approaching and zombies and witches are starting to emerge in all corners of the community. Norman is going to need all the help he can get if he is to use his gift to save the townspeople from the otherworldly creatures.

Kendrick, a Best Supporting Actress nominee for the dramedy "Up in the Air" and a co-star in the first four "Twilight" films, said she had to become a part of "ParaNorman" after she read the script because the story holds as much meaning for kids as it does adults. She was thrilled that it had the ability to entertain its audiences as much as inform them.

"I always appreciated it when I was a kid seeing a family movie with adult themes in it. That way, it felt like the filmmakers weren't underestimating their own audience," Kendrick said. "I love that things get a lot deeper and darker in 'ParaNorman.' With the initial wave of zombies being introduced into the film, it became sort of this strange, silly farce, but then came another wave of mystery to uncover. Things get intense really quickly."

Butler, a veteran storyboard artist and supervisor on the stop-motion films "Corpse Bride" and "Coraline," said like the Tim Burton and Laika productions he previously worked on, he wanted "ParaNorman" to make his audiences think.

"Right when I first started writing this, I wanted something fundamental to the story that was challenging," Butler explained to me. "I firmly believe the best children's fiction, whether its literature or movies, is the stuff that challenges them. I don't mean that it needs to be preachy, but it should maybe present something that children haven't seen before."

In the case of "ParaNorman," that something is a crucial storyline that's grounded in the Salem witch trials, which took place in colonial Massachusetts between 1692 and 1693. And while Butler knows it's an ambitious storyline for an animated film with a target audience that includes kids, he was also quick to point out that the idea of presenting potentially frightening content to children isn't new.

"There's a rich tradition of folk and fairy tales that have terrifying elements. But I think the key thing about them is that they all show there are monsters, and that you can defeat them. I think that's really important," Butler said.

"True, this is a movie about ghosts and zombies, and it's a rollercoaster ride and it's fun. But I wanted it to be about more than that, and using the witch trials as the central concept of the film was a way to show how intolerance translates to modern day," Butler added. "There's bullying in the middle school where Norman goes to, and there's intolerance in the town in which he lives. It seemed so right to the story."

Kendrick said she was moved by Butler's and Fell's commitment of trying to make a difference in people's lives through their work.

"I just love that something exists that people put so much passion into, as well as so much artistry, humor and entertainment," Kendrick enthused. "But the idea that it has themes that will resonate with both kids and adults is really special."