Hidden away in Hillsboro, Oregon (a Portland suburb), lies Laika, the little animation studio that could. You probably haven’t heard its name yet—prior to this summer, it had produced only one feature film. But oh, what a debut! In 2009, Coraline combined stop-motion and 3-D tech to tell Newbery-winning author Neil Gaiman’s delightfully macabre story about a rebellious girl who escapes the clutches of evil doppelganger parents.
Laika unfurls its sophomore effort in cinemas August 17: ParaNorman, another PG-rated thriller—this time with plenty of extra comedy—concerns an outsider kid who uses his ability to commune with ghosts to save his town from a zombie invasion. The results will let us know if Laika is likely to become the American version of England’s Aardman studios (the claymation home of Wallace and Gromit). We talked to codirectors Chris Butler, 38, who also wrote the original screenplay, and Sam Fell, 46, both recruits from Great Britain.
Had you two worked together in the U.K. before coming to Portland?
Sam Fell: No, I met Chris three years ago, when I came to Laika to consult. We hit it off straight away. I read the script, and I liked the idea of doing a zombie movie for kids. I thought [my eight-year-old son] Vincent would like it; he’s a big influence on the things I choose. He said, “That’s a good idea,” and that swayed me a lot.
Since Norman can talk to ghosts, have you already heard endless comparisons to The Sixth Sense?
Chris Butler: When you say you’re writing a movie about a kid who can talk to ghosts, obviously everyone goes, “Oh! [Whispers] He sees dead people.” It was in my mind when I was writing it, although that movie’s pretty old now. Norman is very comfortable seeing dead people; in fact, one of his best relationships is with his dead grandma. So it’s not Sixth Sense in that he is not haunted by these spirits. They actually make his life better.
Tell me about the dynamic between the protagonist Norman and his would-be best friend Neil.
CB: Norman goes through life as a loner. He is bullied for being different, but he just keeps his head down and stays away from people. Neil is the little fat kid who is kind of the flip side of Norman. He is also bullied: He’s fat; he’s got allergies; he has irritable bowl syndrome. Pretty much everything about him screams, “Kick me and steal my money.” But he really puts himself out there. He sees good everywhere. Norman is initially a little resistant, but it’s hard to resist someone like Neil.
The duo end up fighting zombies with other kids. What inspired this collection of odd allies?
CB: A big element of this story is a gang of kids on this supernatural adventure, and that was very much influenced by things I grew up watching like Scooby-Doo and The Goonies, stuff like that. But when I was a kid, it didn’t really make sense to me that these kids were friends with each other on Scooby-Doo because they were all so different. So I have all these different types—there’s a jock, there’s the cheerleader, there’s the school bully, the fat kid, and there’s Norman—and they’re thrown together on this adventure. It’s like what would really happen if you did have Fred, Thelma, Daphne and Shaggy in a van together. They would bicker and probably not like each other, but that’s the fun of it: They become a very solid little unit.
There’s a long line of films for children with plenty of frightful moments in them, going all the way back to the 1930s with Snow White and The Wizard of Oz. But there’s a movement today to spare kids from scary things. With Coraline and now ParaNorman, it’s clear where Laika comes down in that debate—but do you ever get any push back to be softer and fluffier?
CB: That’s definitely something we are always discussing, because we are making a family movie. I think you’re right: I think there is a current trend to move away from things that are considered too scary for kids. But when asked about Coraline, Neil Gaiman said something along the lines of, “It is okay to show monsters as long as you show they can be defeated.” It’s what fairy tales are all about. Sparing kids from scares altogether is not good. I think the best movies, the best children’s literature, don’t shy away from real issues.
SF: With Vincent, I’ve seen as a parent how something scary can be fun, and I see how it can go too far. My take is, it’s good sometimes for kids to be scared. If you’re there next to them, that’s a safe way for them to experience that emotion. Chris and I don’t want to disturb children; the point is to entertain and have them think a little bit as well, in the end.
CB: Whereas Coraline was a very dark fairy tale, ParaNorman is more of a roller-coaster ride. Our scares are more jump-in-your-seat scares, and we were always very careful to balance them with humor and light. Really, the theme at the center is about bullying and tolerance, which I think is a really important thing for kids to understand.
ParaNorman opens August 17.
Update: Read our review here.