Director: Chris Butler and Sam Fell
When it came to following up Henry Selick‘s near-perfect stop-motion feature Coraline, Laika animation studio had a lot on its plate. Selick’s 2009 film is one of the most finely-crafted, beautiful and effective kids-aimed films in years. It relates to the plight of the outcast in an honest way. ParaNorman, from directors Sam Fell and Chris Butler, opts to be a more light-hearted experience.
Then again, maybe “light” is the wrong word to describe ParaNorman. It’s a movie unafraid to test the nightmares and fears of children, on both an emotional and visual level. Like Coraline, Butler and Bell trust that kids are braver than most overly-sensitive parents give them credit for. They throw a nice twist to zombies on the screen, explore themes of isolation and boldly have the death of a child discussed. This is not exactly a softy Dreamworks picture, especially since most of those movies would never approach the cleverness on display here. ParaNorman‘s most obvious horror movie choice? Making the people more scary than the zombies.
Set in your average small town, we follow the lonely and sharp-haired Norman (voiced by Let Me In‘s Kodi Smith-McPhee). Norman is what one would call different, in the typical sense that all his friends happen to be dead people, the kind of dead people only he can see. From his grandma to 50s greasers, Norman sees one and all. As expected, not many “get” Norman, including his family and Gothic school bully Alvin (Christopher Mintz-Plasse).
To make matters weirder, his crazed uncle Mr. Prenderghast (John Goodman) informs him he has to save the town from an evil witch and some zombies. Norman has to carry on a family tradition of reading a story above the witch’s grave to stop her (and her zombies’) resurrection. Unfortunately, the reading doesn’t go all too smooth and his town takes a turn from the worst. Right from the beginning Norman’s goal and journey is clearly set up, so there’s no video game narrative-style that requires the hero to “capture these three items” thrown in towards the end, one of the few flaws in Coraline. He and his cohorts know what they have to do, the chaos of their situation set to the lovely sounds of Jon Brion‘s John Carpenter-esque score.
That’s the most fitting way to put ParaNorman in a box: a cheery, early ’80s-throwback film following a distinct bunch of kids. There are the nerds, the jock (voiced perfectly by Casey Affleck), the bully and the obnoxious, loud-talking, popular blonde (Anna Kendrick). This variety of characters is what distinguishes Butler and and Fell’s film from Selick’s: you’re not stuck with one creepy girl, and the audience is most likely to find at least one kid in this ensemble to relate to. Not only that, they are all genuinely funny in their own way. They take the stock archetypes (the jock, goth bully, etc.), deliver the jokes on their obliviousness, and then gradually make them human, or as human as stop-motion characters can get.
There’s a bigger sense of humor to ParaNorman. Before the film takes a major dark (and visually spectacular) turn towards the end, it’s more of a comedy with shades of horror. Kids and adults may find themselves clinging to their arm rests at the film’s big, bold finale, where Norman’s life becomes in more danger than ever, and violently so. Still, even in the film’s less playful moments, the two tones at play end up complimenting each other nicely, making ParaNorman a movie for everyone.
ParaNorman hits theaters on Friday, August 17th.
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