Co-directors Chris Butler and Sam Fell volley the charge swiftly, as though they’ve heard it before. As stop-motion animators, they are masters of the split-second, and they sense immediately this narrative needs to be righted. Butler, 38, and Fell, 46, are both British children of the ’70s and ’80s, so if fans are going to go back to the future to discover “ParaNorman’s” influential reference points, the directors are quick to point them toward the era of the cinematic DeLorean.
“It’s clearly not ‘The Sixth Sense,’ ” Butler says with crisp, lilting diction, sitting up alertly recently in a suite at the Ritz-Carlton in Georgetown. “It’s John Hughes and John Carpenter, it’s ‘Jaws’ and ‘E.T.’ ”
Butler — who also wrote the animated comedy-thriller that opened Friday — was born in Kent and weaned heavily on such ’80s Hughes teen comedies as “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” and “The Breakfast Club,” the latter of which he says is practically an art film in its story and craft.
“John Hughes used humor to tell something that’s emotionally true or has resonance,” Butler says. “It’s humor from the characters. And I always think of ‘Planes, Trains and Automobiles.’ One of the most heartbreaking monologues on film is John Candy talking about [his flaws] in the motel room. It’s shockingly powerful.”
Hughes was a master of depicting kids who, in the better roles he wrote, went beyond stereotypes and cliched comic tones. “This is like Norman,” says Butler, referring to his film’s spiky-haired 11-year-old who can indeed see — and communicate – with the dead people of the accursed Blithe Hollow, Mass. “He’s the smartest character, and we had to be careful for him not to come across as whiny or [a know-it-all]. . . . You have to believe in that central character. If you’re not along for the ride with him, then you’re not along for the ride.”
Because they are both mining their childhood and creating largely for children, Butler and Fell wanted their cinematic journey to be a joy ride, as well. The van full of “meddling” teens and tweens that careens down the zombie-infested hillside summons direct allusions to “Scooby-Doo.” And when a John Hughes joy ride is called upon as inspiration, only one film naturally comes to mind. “I think about ‘Ferris Bueller’s Day Off,’ and how the ride you go on in that is just so fun,” Butler says. “Life just feels like it’s worth living.”
Butler and Fell contrast the action — in which the adult townsfolk turn to bullying the zombies — with the poignant plight of Norman, who is more comfortable conversing with monsters than his fellow middle-schoolers. The film’s message about bullying — rendered as strikingly in the dialogue as it is visually — is directly culled from Butler’s own adolescent horrors.