Directed by Chris Butler and Sam Fell
Written by Chris Butler
Starring (the voices of): Kodi Smit-McPhee, Tucker Albrizzi, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Casey Affleck, Anna Kendrick, Jeff Garlin, Leslie Mann, and John Goodman
Rated PG for scary action and images, thematic elements, some rude humor and language
Running Time of 93 Minutes
Imagine that you are a child of Elementary school age. Imagine that you are lying in bed at night, still awake later than you probably should be. Imagine that you pull out a flashlight, get under your covers, and start reading that scary book your parents have told you not to read. Maybe it’s raining. Maybe there’s some thunder or something goes bump in the night. This is an exhilarating childhood ritual, and it is the singular feeling that somehow ParaNorman manages to create in cinema form.
When it is attempted, feature length animations can be some of the most artful and fully realized films of a given year. Laika studios, responsible for 2009′s exemplary Coraline, has swung for the fences with ParaNorman and to my mind they have hit it out of the park. Though ostensibly thin on narrative story, ParaNorman excels in character. For all intents and purposes, this film is a character study of Norman, an outcast child who loves horror films and keeps to himself because he can see and talk to ghosts. Few films I’ve seen in recent time, whether animated or not, so convincingly portray the issues and feelings of being an outsider as a child. I speak from experience when I say I know what it is like to be treated as different. Children can be ruthless and cruel, ostracizing anyone who is even remotely unique from what the social “norm” is considered to be. Norman is subjected to this kind of behavior on a constant basis, and unfortunately he even gets it at home. Both his father and sister have a difficult time dealing with Norman as well. Voiced by Kodi-Smit McPhee, Norman is a fully realized and wholly relatable character. Although events begin to spiral out of control in Norman’s spooky Salem-inspired town Blithe Hollow, this film is ultimately about Norman’s journey towards acceptance.
The town of Blithe Hollow is populated by many fascinating and enjoyable characters, from small supporting roles to those in Norman’s circle. It must be noted that the animation on display in this film is positively incredible. Using stop-motion animation combined with 3D printers for the characters’ faces and some CG-enhanced imagery, notably for backgrounds, the film has a stunning tangible feel to it. This is arguably the most impressive and fluid stop-motion animation ever put to film, and scenes with almost one hundred characters behaving individually are stunning. The town of Blithe Hollow feels real and alive, never like figures or animation. Co-directors Sam Fell and Chris Butler are absolutely the real deal, and they have great control not only on the quality of the animation but on the film’s pace, tone, and characters. It has long been noted that stop-motion is potentially the most creepy of all forms of animation, and that is often why you see it applied towards scary stories. Make no mistake: despite being rated PG and seemingly for kids, ParaNorman is a horror film. Filled with zombies, ghosts, and an evil witch, ParaNorman is more frightening than a lot of what passes for horror films in Hollywood these days. A lot of this has to do with the animation and the movement, some of it gruesome, some of it spooky, all of it darkly beautiful.
Beyond all of that, though, ParaNorman is simply a great adventure. The audience connects to the film because of its wonderful main character and the stunning animation, but it’s also exciting and hilarious. The film’s pace is surprisingly deliberate, not quite the ADD madcap adventure that many animated films are, but instead a film that takes its time to set things up and develop its characters. There are moments of physical humor (one in particular involving a vending machine) that are brilliant in their design and execution. Norman’s best friend, Neil (voiced with great enthusiasm by Tucker Albrizzi) is a lovable hoot, and his older brother Mitch (Casey Affleck) is hilarious in a different way. Norman’s sister Courtney (Anna Kendrick) and the school bully Alvin (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) start out as antagonists but join in on the fun once it becomes zombie time. As with many post-modernish horror efforts, ParaNorman is filled with references and love towards the genre from which it stems. Some are more obvious (Norman’s ringtone) and some less (the opening sequence is a wonderful homage to George Romero and other such zombie films, complete with Job Brion’s terrific synth-inspired score that is a nice riff on some of John Carpenter’s work).
The final act of this film is one of the most beautiful and artful pieces of animation I have seen in modern times. It truly belongs up there with the most emotional and satisfying work of recent Pixar. As the film’s endgame comes in to play, it becomes clear how the themes of youthful isolation, bullying, and being different will all tie together and it is kind of breathtaking. As a man I look back to my childhood and remember horrific moments of being persecuted by my peers, and because of that I was fully on board with Norman and this film. It has the power to not only provide a geek friendly horror-comedy-adventure, but also a potent message of accepting everyone for who they are and embracing them for their differences, not persecuting them. It’s a progressive and winning work of art, complete with a final revelation that amusingly brings the message full circle. If the film truly is like a spooky bedtime story as I mentioned early on, then like all great bedtime stories it serves as something of a parable too. This is a film with a message that all children should experience, and if it scares the hell out of some kids then that is probably a good thing too.