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ParaNorman 3D (2012)

August 26, 2012

 

written by: Chris Butler

produced by: Travis Knight and Arianne Sutner

directed by: Sam Fell and Chris Butler

rating: PG (for scary action and images, thematic elements, some rude humor and language)

runtime: 92 min.

U.S. release date: August 17, 2012

 

While Disney and Dreamworks are busy churning out sequels to their blockbusters, other studios are working on their own niche in the animation genre. One such company is Laika, an American stop-motion animation studio out of Oregon that previously released the critically-acclaimed “Coraline” back in 2009, based on the horror/fantasy novella by Neil Gaiman. Like that film embraced a gothic and bizarre tone, “ParaNorman” is an ode to zombie B-movies and the fascination of adolescent Fangoria fans. In other words, it’s another entry from a animators who seem to feel most at home in the macabre world of not-so-kid-friendly frights. That’s something I absolutely welcome, but it can also be confusing for those who still have it in their head that a.) all animated features are for kids, and, b.) all kids must see any new animated feature released throughout the year.

After all, if it has kids in it, why shouldn’t kids see it? Well, that all depends on the child. In general, whoever is taking a child to a see a movie should know both the movie and that child’s threshold. End of PSA.

That being said, adults who grew up in the 80s watching “The Goonies” and “Stand By Me” will appreciate “ParaNorman” for what it really is. Beyond all the ‘dead rising’ and horror flick nostalgia, there’s an endearing and delightful story about a handful of kids racing around town, trying to figure out how to deal with a age-old menace. In typical fashion, they happen to learn a thing or two about themselves and the way of adults. In many ways, “ParaNorman” harkens back to those classic coming-of-age stories where the kids have to take matters into their own hands, since the grown-ups just don’t get it.

 

Alright, so who is ParaNorman? Well, he’s Norman Babcock. A shy and awkward 11 year-old boy, who has a thing for fright flicks. He lives with his family in the small New England town of  Blithe Hollow, Massachusetts. There’s Norman’s father, Perry (Jeff Garlin), his mother, Sandra (Leslie Mann), his airhead older sister, Courtney (an unrecognizable Anna Kendrick), and his Grandma Babcock (a wonderful Elaine Stritch), all residing under the same roof. They seem like a pretty normal family, typically characterized as the parents being kind of into themselves, leaving their child to connect with his grandmother. The only thing is – this grandma is dead.

Yet Norman (sweetly voiced by Kodi Smit-McPhee, no stranger to unsettling and creepy with “The Road” and “Let Me In” under his belt) can see her and he interacts with her like it’s no big deal. Before this gets all “Sixth Sense” on you, let me be clear that the dead people Norman sees do not look like actual real people, there’s a ethereal glowing green aura swirling around these apparitions. They’re ghosts that can apparently only be seen by Norman, and, like other movies depicting the lingering non-corporeal forms, there’s a certain something keeping these souls from going on into the afterlife (although that aspect is sort of glossed over). Near the movie’s opening, we watch as Norman’s neighbors observe the boy make his way to school. They see him acknowledging and presumably interacting with others, only they can’t see anyone. around Norman. At first, neither can we, but then as Norman turns the corner, we see more green ghosts floating around the neighborhood. So, it’s not just Grandma Babcock, Norman can see those who’ve passed on.

Norman is apparently the only one in town with such strange abilities, which labels him as a freak amongst his peers at school. It makes it a challenge to make any friends, except for Neil (Disney Channel alum, Tyler Albrizzi) the resident fat kid at school. Neil knows a thing or two about being an outcast and being bullied by Alvin (Christopher Mintz-Plasse, who could only play a bully in animation), a kid who’s currently targeting Norman. Life is definitely not easy for Norman right now.

Unfortunately, it’s about to become more challenging when he encounters Mr. Prenderghast (John Goodman, having fun), an uncle of his who’s made a name for himself as the town weirdo. Norman’s parents may have told him to stay away from his estranged relative, but maybe that was because the old coot has the same strange ability he does. He even shares some of the same reality-altering visions that Norman experiences. Norman soon learns that his uncle has been responsibility for preventing an age-old curse of a dead witch (think the Salem witch trails), by reciting a special incantation each year that keeps the town from turning into a living nightmare.

It’s now Norman’s duty to follow through with this family task, something he reluctantly accepts. Only he doesn’t quite follow through with the instructions and inadvertently unleashes five zombiefied Purtians (led by Bernard Hill) upon the populace. He’s just a kid, after all. Feeling responsible, Norman sets out to reverse the curse that has brought on such a dilemma. Joined by Alvin, his sister, Neil, and his jock big brother, Mitch (Casey Affleck, another unrecognizable and hilarious contribution), and armed with a secret book, Norman must do some quick thinking in order to make everything right again. It’s a frightening, adrenalized mission for all involved and one that will provide some unexpected surprises for Norman.

 

 

The script by Chris Butler (who also co-directed with Sam Fell, “Flushed Away” and “Tales of Desperaux” ) has its share of genuine laughs and comical sequences to balance out some of the gross-out elements, but it soon becomes clear that the intention is not to scare off young viewers. That’s because “ParaNorman” is never really all that frightening and it also doesn’t manage to maintain enough of a comedic tone throughout. It is definitely witty and clever, but I get the feeling it could’ve been pushed more in this direction. Granted, a horror-comedy for kids is tough to pull off, but I would’ve preferred the movie lean more heavily toward either the frights or the laughs. Still, I can’t blame them for going easy on the fear factor here, because kids are going to be drawn to this no matter what.

Those are small gripes though for a movie that I found surprisingly entertaining and easily likable. What will immediately capture a viewer’s attention is the impressive animation and the fun characterization on display here. Computer-generated animation can be amazing, but seeing it combined with stop-motion animation adds more details and texture to every frame. From the strands of hair to the wiry shoelaces, these characters are designed with great attention and wonderful exaggeration. Norman’s hair, which stands straight up (as if he stuck his finger in an electrical outlet) feels like a sentient being. Great care was given to the body designs of each character, making them seem like real body shapes, call it an unflattering over-emphasis. Even the round or oblong-shaped faces of the zombies offer up some unique and appropriately 17th century details.

 

 

Laika’s use of earth tones offers a Halloween palette that is beautiful to be hold, which makes up for the somewhat uneven pace of the picture. There’s a sense at the end of the second act, that everything can be wrapped up soon. So, by the time we’re into the third act, it doesn’t quite feel like a dramatic (or frightening) climax, but more like an moral lesson on anti-bullying and embracing who you are. Those are both great messages, ones that were already told throughout the feature. It’s too bad Norman has to get all talky about it in the end.

And there I go again feeling a bit too nit-picky. Sure, through the eyes of a critic, one can find some problems with “ParaNorman”, but considering all the other kinds of animated features out there and how this is catering to an age-range (say, 8-12) that is too often ignored, I can such problems getting washed away by fond memories in the long run. Even as I write this, my mind recalls the cheeky humor and nods to horror genre nostalgia that are so prevalent in “ParaNorman”.  Clearly, I’ve chosen to embrace the originality of it all over any misgivings I still have.

While there is some heavy – if not somber – material revealed once we understand the true motives of the witch and the zombies (yes, in this movie the undead have issues too), the humor and animation make up for any inconsistencies in tone. Considering all the ground the filmmakers wanted to cover here, they do so mostly with a deft hand, treading as carefully as they can through sensitive and potentially frightening territory. The use of 3D is nicely done here too, never feeling like a gimmick but more like an added bonus as it accentuates the scenery and these stop-motion creations.

“ParaNorman” is the first of three frightfully-themed animated features marketed toward kids. Knowing enough about those other two features, I’m betting (and kind of hoping) that this one will be the underdog that winds up being the best of the three. With a #weirdwins hashtag, I feel compelled to root for it.

 

 

RATING: ***

 

 

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. Adam permalink
    August 26, 2012 3:44 pm

    We just got back from the movie and I really enjoyed it. Having friends that were obsessed with horror movies as a kid lended to some of that. I felt like I knew that kid. It was a lot of fun to see all the nods to old horror movies.

    I was fine with the talky ending. It was foreshadowed by grandma in the first five minutes of the movie, so there was no surprise there. Besides, what are you going to do, beat up and kill a little girl…again?

    All in all it was lots of fun. We did not see it in 3D, so I would be curious as to how that looked. Especially in some of the darker scenes. Can’t wait to see what this studio has in store next.

    • David J. Fowlie permalink*
      August 26, 2012 6:11 pm

      I hear ya. I just felt like the message was a tad repetitious at the end. Still, this feels much original than “Hotel Transylvannia” and “Frankenweenie”. Laika should be announced their next feature at the end of the year.

      • Adam permalink
        August 26, 2012 8:16 pm

        We saw the trailer for Frankenweenie and my daughter leaned over and asked “is it going to be all black and white?” ha that really seemed knock it down a bit for her.

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