"ParaNorman" teaches kids that there will be challenges, but they can be overcome.
Think of the movies that scared you as a child.
"Bambi" -- Hey, his mom died!
"'Snow White' scared me, that evil queen," remembers animation director Sam Fell.
"The first kids' movie that frightened me as a child was 'Pinocchio,'" recalls screenwriter/director Chris Butler. "There's all these horrible villains in it, and none of them get their comeuppance."
And "The Wizard of Oz"?
"The flying monkeys scared kids the world over!" says Fell.
But Butler and Fell, like most of us, grew up a little bit watching those movies when very young. And since both men matured to be makers of animated movies -- they have "Corpse Bride," "Coraline" and "Flushed Away" credits between them -- we can pretty much assume they turned out all right. Which is part of the logic underpinning their animated film, "ParaNorman."
It's a bit edgy, in concept and dialogue. An old man hisses "Pssst" at some kids to get their attention.
And it's a little scary. Both of them planned it that way.
"There is a trend toward making things more palatable for very young children," says Butler, who scripted and co-directed the stop-motion (clay puppets) animated "ParaNorman." "But you have to know your audience. So we would never say this movie is for pre-schoolers. Too scary."
Fell, a veteran of the British Aardman ("Wallace and Gromit") studio, says that molded-animated puppets make the film's reality that much more real, "that idea we all carry from childhood, of our toys coming to life."
"But what can you do in a kids' film?" Fell asks. "What did 'Toy Story 3' do? It explored the idea of mortality. But that's nothing new. That's what fairytales did hundreds of years ago. That's what is most important, that kids' fiction endures if it challenges them."
Critics have found "ParaNorman" challenging, with most agreeing with Variety's notice -- "Few movies so taken with death have felt so rudely alive."
"When I grew up, family entertainment was a little more daring, smarter and funnier and more irreverent," Butler says.
"You don't want to say America's babying its kids, that it's wrong to do so," Fell concludes. "But part of the purpose of kids' fiction is to exercise their brains."
So "ParaNorman" is about a kid who sees and talks to ghosts, something that comes in handy when the victims of a long-ago witch trial come back to life to curse the town. The story's depth comes from the way the filmmakers connect the current bugaboo bullying to a classic example of it.
"People point the finger at someone who is different from them, and then persecute them," Butler says. "Witch trials make a perfect analogy, a perfect explanation of why people bully."
"It's driven by fear and ignorance, right?" Fell says. "Bullies may have been bullied themselves. But in any case, they're very frightened. That's how they make themselves look big."
And in their movie, they show kids learning to stand up to bullies, real and ghostly.
"So the idea is, show kids challenges, and show them that challenges can be overcome," Fell says.