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Revolution in Laika’s “ParaNorman?”

September 21, 2012
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“He’s gay!” shrieks a young child gleefully a few rows closer to the screen. His mother neither scolds him nor tells him to be quiet, rather she agrees and asks him if he enjoyed the movie; jumping up and down his only answer is a resounding “yes!” It has been revealed that the slighly oafish, football-playing jock character (Mitch) present throughout most of the movie has a boyfriend of his very own. He is not being ironic; rather he is just as straightforward and matter-of-fact as he was previously. The subject of his homosexuality is not discussed again, because there is no need to discuss it. It is fact, it is who he is and in no way influences the role that he played previously in the film: the rather daft brawn that drives everyone around. Mitch’s sexuality matters neither to the rest of the characters we see nor to the artists and animators at Laika.

It can be said that many– if not all– movies targeted towards children lack or better yet glaze over any intimation of homosexuality. Of course, it should be considered that conspicuous references to it came into being no less than fifty years ago. While this subject matter is discussed more openly on television and in adult-themed films now, it has nevertheless been deemed taboo especially in youth programming and entertainment. What could be worse than exposing one’s child to an “alternative” or “unnatural” way of life, and by doing so raise questions about the nature of sexuality? Focus Features and Laika, the stop-motion studio known for 2009’s Coraline, fearlessly crosses the threshold of this tumultuous territory with their newest film ParaNorman; in a surprisingly simple manner to boot.

Although the reaction of the aforementioned child and his mother was a rather cavalier one, there are still many people protesting ParaNorman. They state that they had little interest before and now no interest in heading to the theatre to see what is in their opinion nothing more than a casual advertisement promoting the idea that homosexuality (and by extension, everything associated with the LGBTQ community) is one hundred percent natural and alright. This backlash takes the form of various comments on sites (IMDB to be specific), written articles and youtube videos amongst many others.  It is in their perspective something of which youth should not be made aware, fearing the questioning mentioned previously but also likely fearing that their children will deviate from the path they wish for them.

Heading into the theatre, one is under the assumption that they are going to spend the next ninety-three minutes watching a band of kids fight off a horde of zombies; they are, for the most part correct. In truth, the dead rising from the grave is merely a plot device used to direct our attention to the group’s unofficial leader, the underdog and hero: Norman. Norman can see and converse with ghosts and his family has a serious problem with what they think is a case of extreme introversion and mild insanity. He asks his parents and sister why he can’t be accepted for the way he was born, not having any control over what he can and cannot do. They are unable to give him an answer, fearing ostracism from the same townspeople who shunned his uncle (who possesses the same gift). Although their intentions are indeed good, as they worry about their son’s mental health and the threat of him becoming a pariah, they prove themselves to be just as petrified of any difference or deviation from the life they wish to lead.

Unfortunately it isn’t until times of trial that they are able to fully comprehend that their son is in no way different, and it is in fact his differences that make him an incredibly valuable asset. Up until this point there is no overt reference to any aspect of the LGBTQ community, no mention of it at all. What is discussed is the idea of acceptance, of others and of oneself. This is not merely the story of a town looking down upon a boy and then changing their minds, it is the story of a boy looking down upon himself and eventually finding that he too is special. Laika, unlike so many other movie and specifically animation studios is teaching children an incredibly valuable lesson: that everyone, regardless of their race, creed, sexuality, gender identity, etc. is important and can make a significant difference. It is only when he is relied upon that Norman sees something beautiful and strong within himself.

The disdain of many for this film exists only because Mitch refers to his “boyfriend” rather than “girlfriend;” the word “gay” is never used. Some even go so far as to say that Laika was being cowardly in not revealing his sexuality sooner. But, it was merely meant to be a secondary fact  free of judgment rather than a defining characteristic as sexuality or gender identity should be. It is all rather hilarious when one thinks about it, because this is not the only aspect of the film that alludes to LGBTQ. It becomes clear quite fast that Norman’s paranormal abilities serve as a metaphor for homosexuality. Thus it is ironic that it isn’t the gay character who experiences anything like this (that we know of) as he fits in to almost every stereotype that our society has come to associate with a heteronormativity. It is the quiet boy that we want so desperately to win who is taunted. Thus, this struggle is rendered far more relatable, instilling in its audience a genuine level of understanding; if Norman can prove himself then anyone can and has the right to do the same.

With this invaluable lesson appearing in a children’s movie, the question must be asked: is there a dramatic change around the corner? Will other films and television shows viewed by younger audiences begin featuring queer characters? This has been expected for some time, but there have always been staunch objections. The rest of the entertainment industry is not likely to budge just yet, as Laika is quite small and Focus Features is an independent studio. They are able to do something like this, but would Disney or DreamWorks? Probably not, with fan bases much larger and far more diversified.

No one can be completely positive however; this may just be the start. As the turmoil of this debate continues to volatility infiltrate every part of this country and this planet does the answer lie with children? It has been said that children are our future, and in this case nothing could be further from the truth. To be taught at an early age the nature of love and acceptance is a profoundly wonderful idea and one can only imagine the state of the world if more films like this emerge into the public forum. Hopefully others will see in ParaNorman this concept, and desire to perpetuate it through other forms of visual culture. This film, while seemingly tame, is truly a tour de force not only for the remarkable animation but because it has finally started talking about something that has been quiet for so very long; here’s hoping that things won’t go silent again and we will all embrace anything and everything especially if it is different. After all, one of the film’s tag lines is “you don’t become a hero by being normal.”

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