The studio behind Coraline releases another stop-motion mix of horror, humor and drama with the surprisingly sweet and textured ParaNorman.
WARNING: MINOR SPOILERS ARE MORE AFRAID OF YOU THAN YOU ARE OF THEM!
Norman (Kodi Smit-McPhee) isn’t like other boys. For as long as he can remember, Norman has had the ability to see and speak to the dead, including the ghost of his grandmother (Elaine Stritch). Nobody believes in Norman or his gift, making him a target of ridicule at school by alpha bully Alvin (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) and at home by his sister Courtney (Anna Kendrick) and his father Perry (Jeff Garlin). The only person who seems to think Norman isn’t a “freak” is a fellow outsider, the chubby and oddly resilient Neil (Tucker Albrizzi). When a witch’s curse casts darkness over the town of Blithe Hollow, and the dead begin to rise, Norman’s gift is the only thing able to break the spell. Accompanied by Neil, Alvin, Courtney and Neil’s low-watt musclehead brother Mitch (Casey Affleck), Norman races against time to save the town from the curse…and from the fearful, panicking residents.
Crafting animated films that appeal to children and adults equally is still an evolving craft in America. Too often, animated films are given “edge” or “adult appeal” by loading the screen with fish-in-a-barrel pop culture riffs or through an abuse of irony and sarcasm. The Shrek franchise is a prime example. Rare is the animated film that is simple enough to entertain children while also being textured and intelligent enough to entertain adults (whether they have children or not). Studio LAIKA scored a hit with 2009’s Coraline, a mature film that thrived on a macabre form of whimsy, combined with a stellar voice cast and script. While ParaNorman doesn’t always reach the heights of that film, it’s still a winning mixture of sweetness and darkness, with a committed and vibrant cast.
“I see dead people. It’s no big deal, really.”
Although ParaNorman feels like it should be based on a best-selling young adult book, it’s an original creation for the screen, written by Chris Butler and directed by Butler and Sam Fell. Both men have experience in working with stop-motion, Butler as part of the crew of Coraline and Fell as director of Flushed Away. It’s hard to say which man had more influence in the end, but the film wisely avoids duplicating either of their previous works. There’s a refreshing simplicity to the world of Blithe Hollow, lovingly detailed but never too busy or cluttered. Things ranging from a leather book jacket to a slithering leech have a photorealism and tactility that CGI still can’t duplicate. When the supernatural shenanigans commence in full, the effects are convincingly otherworldly in relation to the established palette of Norman’s world.
One of the best parts of the film is the screenplay, which can be bitingly funny, without being snide, and heartfelt, without being maudlin. Butler avoids filling the dialogue with current pop culture references, instead paying homage to a plethora of classic films ranging from Friday the 13th to Young Frankenstein. The opening scenes show Norman watching a perfect recreation of a Z-grade grindhouse zombie film. The only truly modern joke comes when Norman uses his cell phone as a flashlight, then sees the light sputter and die until he shakes it and says, “Come on, come on…” just like a flashlight in a classic horror film. The majority of the film’s humor and appeal come from the interactions of the characters, giving everything a decidedly organic feel.
“Ummm…ki ki ki, ma ma ma?”
The characters are brought to life by an enthusiastic and committed voice ensemble that casts the right actors in the roles instead of the most bankable. Kodi Smit-McPhee and Tucker Albrizzi are both roughly the ages of their characters, and both have an unforced, natural charm in their roles. The irrepressible Neil and the beaten-down Norman make a good team, both responding to their outcast status in opposite ways. Norman goes through life with a sigh and resignation. He even keeps Windex in his school locker to wipe off the daily graffiti left there. Neil, on the other hand, lets the world’s ridicule roll off his back, accepting his lot in life with an odd kind of pride and enthusiasm that could easily be confused with cluelessness.
It’s hard to tell if Norman and Neil were designed to look like Smit-McPhee and Albrizzi, or if the actors just happened to look like their characters. That uncanny resemblance carries on over to most of the rest of the cast, with the exception of the adorkable Christopher Mintz-Plasse, who looks nothing like the brutish, uncouth Alvin (but does a great job in voicing him). Anna Kendrick’s Courtney is Blithe Hollow’s answer to Cordelia Chase in the best possible ways, while Casey Affleck’s Mitch fulfills the “dumb jock,” role while also rising above it in unexpected ways. He’s a well-meaning lunkhead with a heart of gold and a van full of protein powder.
The character designs of the Blithe Hollow residents are one of the high points of the film’s visuals. The characters are exaggerated enough to be cartoonish, but still maintain a degree of realism within the frame. There are details in the oddest places, like in the flabby arms of the school’s harpy of a drama teacher, or the fact that each character seems to have their own set of uniquely-aligned teeth. Perry’s belly seems to have a life of its own, as does Norman’s hair, which refuses to be styled as anything but straight-up fright spikes. The animation is fluid but not slick, the textures sometimes endearingly rough, but never shoddy.
Besides being entertaining, ParaNorman is also a study in the psychology of fear and the destructiveness it can bring, even if that message is sometimes preachy or heavy-handed. Norman is almost universally feared by the people of the town, who openly deny that Norman can speak to the dead, while secretly afraid that he’s telling the truth, accessing a world that nobody has any experience or ability to cope with. When the zombies show up, the townsfolk almost immediately turn into a bloodthirsty mob, even when the zombies seem to be themselves frightened of the humans and don’t make any aggressive moves. Fear is revealed to be a cycle, one that’s kept the town under the curse for 300 years. Blithe Hollow itself is almost a monument to fear. The town’s primary source of income and identity comes from crassly exploiting the tragedy of the witch’s execution, turning the town into a Salem-style tourist trap rife with witch-themed bric-a-brac and questionably accurate school pageants depicting the witch’s trial.
While the visuals and dialogue maintain a degree of consistency in the film, the tone tends to vary from scene to scene. It goes from horror to humor to drama to adventure in an often clumsy, lurching manner, almost like a zombie itself. Some of the more macabre moments have an almost unsettling amount of darkness in what’s ostensibly a children’s film, but it never handles it with the aplomb that Coraline did, and it often feels slightly out of place. The climax of the film takes on a seriousness that in some ways resembles a Miyazaki film, and while it’s well done and a good balance of action and emotion, the build-up to it is a little abrupt. The final two acts all happen in a few hours’ story time, and it sometimes feels both rushed and drawn out.
Regardless of its flaws, the film is a sweet, funny take on horror films that turns many of the tropes of the genre on its head. It’s focus on how the marginalized and ridiculed are treated by society is certainly something that LGBT viewers could relate to, as is the fact that the outcasts of the community are its true saving grace. The main theme is that we all have gifts, and that we’re all fine as we are. Norman even protests to his parents that he was “born this way.” On top of that, there’s an openly gay character whose sexuality isn’t revealed until the very end, and when it is, it’s treated in a refreshingly nonchalant way. Stop-motion animation may be a less modern medium than CGI, but ParaNorman manages to have a kind of timeless appeal that CGI can’t always achieve.
“Do you like scary movies? I do!”
There’s nothing to fear but fear itself. Except zombies. And witches. Or that mob with pitchforks and torches. At least I think that’s right.
Rating: 7 out of 10 / B
JOHNNY M is a frequent FBOTU contributor and an admitted coulrophobic.