“I’m sure if they just bothered to sit down and talk it through, it’d be a different story.”
Norman hears these words from his grandmother at the beginning of ParaNorman, a film by the stop-motion animation studio LAIKA. She says this after seeing a zombie eat a woman’s head in a movie, because, as Norman explains, “it’s what [zombies] do.” Norman rolls his eyes when his grandmother recommends talking it through, because how could you talk something through with a zombie? It would be impossible. Silly to even try. Why would anyone think they could resolve a conflict with zombies with anything but violence?
We expect a certain degree of pacifism in children’s movies, in that we do not expect villains to be vanquished by bloody violence when the story’s target demographic is younger than 13. To fulfill the plot, villains of children’s movies have to be stopped, but the hero of a children’s movie obviously can’t kill somebody and still be considered a role model for kids. Thus, children’s movies tend to find convenient, clean, impersonal ways for villains to die, ways that the heroes are not directly responsible for (falling off a cliff, exploding, or both are perennial favorites). This is a kind of lazy pacifism—writers knowing that kids shouldn’t be taught to kill, but not really caring about actively teaching them not to. An explosion is a satisfying end to a villain, an easily identified climax, and writers are usually more interested in delivering satisfying endings than in having their heroes be pacifists.
This is not to say that it’s necessarily a problem that most children’s movies aren’t really nonviolent at heart, but it does make the films of LAIKA stand out. LAIKA takes its pacifism seriously; they have their protagonists (as in, the characters children will most identify with) actively try to find nonviolent ways to resolve problems. Three of LAIKA’s films, The Boxtrolls, Kubo and the Two Strings, and ParaNorman, are examples of this brand of active pacifism. And in Kubo and ParaNorman they take it a step further by bringing this sensibility to genres usually characterized by gore.
The Boxtrolls is an example of the typical style of children’s movie (in that its villain dies in a funny way not directly caused the protagonist), but it still reveals LAIKA’s pacifist leanings in its final confrontation. The antagonist of the film, Archibald P. Snatcher, dies because he explodes after eating too much cheese. Multiple characters have warned him against it, as he has already displayed a deathly cheese allergy, but cheese is a symbol of power and respect in the world of The Boxtrolls, and Snatcher will stop at nothing to obtain this symbol. In another film, Eggs might have smirked as he saw Snatcher about to eat himself to death, an understandable schadenfreude after Snatcher had tried to kill the boxtrolls who raised Eggs. Instead, Eggs makes one last, heartfelt plea to the man: “don’t do it,” he says. “Cheese, hats, boxes… they don’t make you. You make you.” It is the central theme of the film—that a person cannot be measured by their outfit or status—that Eggs sums up here, and it is a real effort to stop Snatcher from destroying himself, even if it is unsuccessful.
You’ll notice, watching these three films, that LAIKA protagonists have a habit of stating and embodying the messages of their stories in these climactic conversations. Kubo is no different from Eggs in this regard. The most recent and violent of the three films, Kubo and the Two Strings is a film about death and grief. The villain of the film is Kubo’s grandfather, the Moon King, an immortal deity who would rather kill his family members than let them remain on Earth, mortal. He will stop at nothing to keep Kubo in the sky forever, a fate Kubo’s mother and father fought and died to avoid.
The Moon King is afraid of death, and he has figured out a way to elude it eternally. He reigns in the sky, unchanging, apart from the flaws and transience of the human world below. Kubo and the Two Strings is all about coming to terms with death, and the Moon King refuses to, not even hesitating to doom others to the fate he fears in his attempts to escape it. But killing the Moon King isn’t the answer, even though the whole film seems to be gearing up for it. In his last stand against his grandfather, which takes place in a graveyard, Kubo finds a different path.
Kubo spends nearly the entire film collecting powerful objects that turn out to be unnecessary. His father’s armor, helmet, and sword, said to be the only things capable of stopping the Moon King, are the tools that Kubo goes to great lengths to find, and he does use them at first. He fights the Moon King’s monstrous form, slashing his underbelly and even blinding him in one eye. But Kubo ultimately discards these implements of war in favor of his shamisen strung with his father’s bowstring, his mother’s hair, and a strand of his own.
Instead of taking up the sword, Kubo honors his parents by playing for them, and the wave of these memories (which Kubo calls “the most powerful kind of magic there is”) engulfs the Moon King, rendering him mortal. The former king awakens an amnesiac, saying he has forgotten his story, because until he was mortal, he did not have one. The villagers, in an act of forgiveness, convince him he is a good man, a pillar of the community. In a story characterized by death, the conflict is resolved with music and forgiveness.
Which brings us back to ParaNorman, perhaps the best example of LAIKA’s particular brand of pacifism. Just like Kubo, Norman finds himself in a genre known for violence; Kubo had to choose not to use his father’s sword, and Norman has to convince the people of his hometown not to use similar weapons. And like Kubo and the Two Strings, to understand the conflict of ParaNorman you have to understand its “villain,” Angry Aggie, a witch put to death by the town council many years ago.
There is a reason for Angry Aggie’s nickname. The witch of ParaNorman is angry and more—vengeful, vindictive, and remorseless. She is also a little girl who was executed by frightened townsfolk in the name of misguided justice. This horrible, violent mistake by the townspeople is the starting point for the film’s plot, which sees Norman and his friends trying to stop Aggie from taking her revenge on the town. But along the way, the corpses of the long-dead council that executed Aggie rise up, and the living townspeople reflexively attack, assuming that these zombies wish them harm. It is a mistake born of the same fear that caused the zombie council to kill Aggie, for which the zombies are attempting to atone. Norman’s friends help him convince the town to let the zombies go, but Norman has to face Aggie alone.
Guided by the zombies, Norman goes to Aggie’s grave to help her ghost move on. Aggie lashes out at Norman, even pushes him around not unlike a playground bully, all the while screaming out her desire to make everyone suffer. Norman doesn’t use any weapon or magic in this scene, nothing more than his words and his understanding of how and why Aggie is hurting. He points out that by making the town suffer, Aggie would be punishing innocent people, doing the same thing that was done to her. He shows that she’s using the tactics of a bully, and he reminds her that there was someone in her life who cared for her.
In a flash, Aggie goes from vengeful spirit to scared girl. She looks at her hands, human again, no longer made of lightning and fury. She remembers her mother, who used to tell her fairy tales. She talks to Norman, who looks an awful lot like her, and listens when he tells her about his own journey, how he used to think there weren’t any good people in the world until he made friends. He says there is always someone out there for her, and she thinks of her mother, who has passed on. Then, sitting peacefully next to Norman, she, too, moves on from the world.
People can make mistakes, but hurting them in return solves nothing. All it takes is one person able to understand and empathize, and a cycle of violence can turn into a problem solved with words. The message of ParaNorman is that if you listen and understand, no one has to get hurt.
In the final moments of their stories, the goal of the heroes in ParaNorman, Kubo and the Two Strings, and even The Boxtrolls, is not to win, to defeat, or to vanquish. It is to convince, to help, and to forgive. LAIKA gives children role models that can resolve conflicts peacefully even in the face of violence. Snatcher threatens nearly everyone Eggs loves, and Eggs still tries to save him from his self-destruction. The Moon King rampages through Kubo’s hometown as a giant beast, and Kubo still chooses to make him a part of his family instead of striking him down with a sword. Angry Aggie is a ghost witch made of lightning that goes out of her way to hurt Norman, and Norman still sees past it and helps her let go of her harmful grudges.
Seeing the humanity in someone who has harmed you and choosing to forgive them is the act of a hero. LAIKA crafts stories that do not ignore the violence of the world yet end with their heroes choosing a nonviolent path. It is clear the kind of message that LAIKA wants to impart on the children watching its movies, that even when surrounded by violence, pain, and death, they do not have to be defined by them. Despite the root of the word, pacifism is usually not a passive choice—it is a difficult choice that must be actively pursued with both empathy and persistence. LAIKA shows children how to make it.