When it debuted on August 17, Laika's stop-motion animated zombie comedy "ParaNorman" might just have made history–in perhaps the quietest way possible. In a small, almost thrown-away moment towards the end of the movie, one of the film's supporting characters mentions his boyfriend, and in doing so, became the first openly gay character in an American animated feature. (Mild spoiler alert: this post contains a couple of "ParaNorman" references that you might want to hold off on until you've seen the film.)
Norman Babcock, the protagonist of "ParaNorman," teams up (albeit not willingly) towards the beginning of the movie with Neil, an eccentric, chubby kid who's as much of an outcast at school as Norman is. When Norman sneaks out of the house on a night that his parents go out to dinner, his ditzy sister Courtney looks to Neil for help, along with Neil's brother Mitch, a jock with a chain link tattoo on his bicep and a character design so stylized his hugely muscular torso looks like it's from a different body than his tiny waist.
Also, Mitch is gay. But for most of "ParaNorman," we don't know that. All we know is that Mitch doesn't much outperform Courtney on the ditz scale–when he football kicks a zombie's head away, he reacts not with distress but amazement that he has punted it as far as he did–and when he reacts with disinterest to Courtney's romantic advancements, we chalk it up to his over-muscled chest and under-developed intellect.
And then, after the day is saved, and Courtney asks if Mitch wants to see a movie, he says sure, saying Courtney's going to love his boyfriend, who's totally into chick flicks. "ParaNorman" doesn't dwell on the moment at all, which is in itself perhaps an accomplishment. In this film, the gay character is decidedly unstereopyical in his gayness, and his sexuality doesn't merit more than a single line.
And yet, "ParaNorman"'s gay character doesn't really seem to be getting a lot of press, or much at all, to be more precise. Aside from a few articles on right-wing, conservative websites (this one talks about a friend who saw the film "in a 'red state' and reported that 'you could hear the gasps in the theatre from parents' at the unexpected line"), Mitch Downe the gay jock hasn't been that big of a deal.
Is this a good thing? Who's to say? Maybe it's a sign of how gays and lesbians are simply part of the mainstream these days for most Americans. "ParaNorman" certainly espouses no particularly political perspective on its gay character, and isn't making a statement. But when Pixar featured its first female protagonist in "Brave," and Disney its first black princess in "The Princess and the Frog," people saw fit to mention it when they wrote about the films.
"ParaNorman," like Laika's other film "Coraline," isn't really trying to be mainstream. But by including a gay character that is either 'Mitch' or 'the jock' before he's 'the gay character,' it may just be the most subversively mainstream animated film we've seen in a while.