Sunday, 7 October 2012

Children and in Art: Brief Thoughts on ParaNorman and Moonrise Kingdom (and Coraline

There was a significant time span between the time I saw ParaNorman and Moonrise Kingdom but when I sat down to think about both it harkened me back to 2009 and one of my favourite films of that year – Henry Selick’s Coraline. 2009, if you recall, was a beacon year for children-focused (read: mostly animated) films and Selick’s creepy and moving Coraline was the best. Coraline, in fact, exists as one of the paramount examples of children focused of the last two decades, for me. What made it such a cinematic beacon was the great respect it directed at its intended (mostly children) audience. Under Selick Coraline was never afraid to be terrifying, poignant or sincere and that genuineness was made it such an effective film for children and adults. Moonrise Kingdom and ParaNorman are two fine entries in this year's oevure of films and although I do not adore either as much as I did Coraline then I greatly appreciate both for their overwhelming sincerity in examining children’s issues in their respective films.
Ostensibly, the parallels between ParaNorman and Coraline appear more stark. Both are stop-motion 3D fantasy horror films with significant interest in the supernatural world, which its protagonist must traverse through for the film to reach its resolution. Where Coraline’s secret weapon was its straightforward dramatic roots, though, ParaNorman rests on its humour. The extended opening sequence sets up the “problem” of the film in an ingenious, hilarious sequence which encapsulates the best things about the film (hey, Elaine Stritch doing great voice-work). Misfit Norman has the unwieldy gift of seeing ghosts, a talent that comes with added annoyance since no one believes him. The quagmire augments when it turns out the New England town he lives in is one with a rich past of paranormal occurrences.

ParaNorman unfolds with a great number of farcical nods. From the continuous manner in which Norman’s knowledge is disregarded to his almost boorish best-friend/sidekick, his friend’s not-all-there older brother, Norman’s own somewhat shrewish parents and a group of adults who digress between cluelessness and silliness. The enjoyable farce becomes a brilliant concealment for the ultimate poignancy of the two ultimate codas – one where Norman’s ragtag group of allies pledge allegiance to him, and the second where the truth of the town’s gory history is uncovered. The set-up of those moments – the latter one in particular – suggests that the film is more interested in the ludicrous silliness of Norma’s own life than the actual root of the town’s issue which makes sense considering that the film is better at its humour than its drama. It makes me feel almost a bit curmudgeonly for thinking – at first – that the film’s main flaw is the way its humour almost, but barely, eschews its emotive thrust. Half way through I get over it quickly enough, especially when the closing scene is as funny as it is honestly rich with feeling.

How Moonrise Kingdom recalls a familiar theme of Coraline. How ParaNorman and Moonrise Kingdom recall bits of each other, and more below the jump...

Whereas ParaNorman invokes Coraline with its aesthetics, Moonrise Kingdom summons it with its central theme – misunderstood children seeking a world away from uncompromising adults. Moonrise Kingdom also joins two of my favourite films of THIS year (The Deep Blue Sea and Damsels in Distress) in invoking the specificity of its setting so excellently. The idiosyncratically directed tale of burgeoning love between two pre-adolescent youths is mounted with such warmth and sweetness putting most (adult) love-stories of the last three years to shame. Suzy and Sam have a hilarious meet-cute and becomes pen-pals over a few months deciding to, ultimately, run away. This becomes simple since her house is on the same island as his summer camp, and when the two disappear their seemingly divergent world collides in a number of expectedly (and some unexpectedly) zany ways. Even while surrounded by the madcap, the young lovers cling to each other. Such sweet sincerity is the mark of any good romance and with the beautifully constructed inclinations of the leads it would be a fine film were it just a romance.

Anderson is not just focused on a tale of romance (however sweet), though. Anderson, as per normal, has indomitable appreciation for and knowledge of the characters in his milieu. And with the optimistic romance at its centre the film becomes a solid observation of childhood’s (na├»ve) optimism measured against the sometimes crippling defeat which comes with age. And still, like in Coraline we know that there is hope in our youths returning home to their parents. And, of course, because this is an Anderson piece the sadness is muted by a significant undertone of charming whimsy running throughout but even as it wraps up as sweetly as you could hope, it remains – but vaguely – steeped in an almost melancholic mood which makes its charm that much more poignant.

There are two moments (one potentially being a throwaway one) in the two films which made me incredibly pleased. In ParaNorman after a film long build-up Norman’s sister asks the jock-y Mitch Downe to see a movie with her. To which he glibly agrees, citing his boyfriend’s love for cinema. It has little effect on the film’s actual narrative but the fluidity with which emerges not as a hot-button issue but as an offhand fact is something worthy of commendation. In the same way, when Suzy quietly confronts her mother about her affair – I smile. Neither Anderson nor Butler is intent on shrouding historically “complex” issues from its children and it recalls that great regard for the intelligence of its audience – both young and old – that I loved Coraline so much for. A number of filmmakers struggle with making their child characters ring true. ParaNorman and Moonrise Kingdom have the children at the front, and both succeed.

Aside: Both films also have significant themes examining the much too pervasive wall which grows between parents and children as they get older. In both, the filmmakers address the issue with a subtle suggestion of hope being a possibility, both pull it off.

ParaNorman B  
Moonrise Kingdom A- 
(Treating your audience (children and adults) with respect: Priceless)

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