If there is justice in the world, LAIKA’s newest movie ParaNorman will make the studio a star in the league of Pixar. A self-styled zombie movie for kids, ParaNorman may ultimately be much more conventional than 2009′s Coraline, but this also means it’s far more accessible. It has the same stubbornly independent streak as a lot of the earliest Pixar movies were, when they were the young upstarts on the block. If you or the younglings you’re bringing can handle some slightly stronger fare than is normal in a kids’ film, ParaNorman is swimming in pleasures to indulge in, especially for fans of stop-motion animation.
The slowly crumbling New England town of Blithe Hollow is filled with macabre kitsch, trying (and apparently failing) to lure tourists with its past history of a colonial-era witch trial and the subsequent curse the witch reportedly laid on the town. It is home to 11-year old Norman Babcock (Kodi Smit-McPhee), a lad with an unhealthy obsession with zombies and the ability to see and speak to the numerous dead spirits throughout the town. This makes him an outcast, at best misunderstood by people like his well-meaning but slightly dense parents (Jeff Garlin and Leslie Mann), and at worst the target of torment and mockery by his peers at school, especially the thuggish bully Alvin (Christopher Mintz-Plasse). Norman’s (ab)normal routine is powerfully disrupted by his estranged maternal uncle, Mr. Prenderghast (John Goodman), who shows up suddenly to tell Norman that the witch’s curse is real. Norman is soon tasked with keeping the witch’s curse from bringing vaguely-defined evil down upon Blythe Hollow, with his only allies being his entirely vapid older sister Courtney (Anna Kendrick), his tubby and slightly slow friend Neil (Tucker Albrizzi), Neil’s muscle-bound older brother Mitch (Casey Affleck), and, surprisingly enough, Alvin.
As noted above, ParaNorman‘s oxymoronic aspiration is to be a zombie movie for kids, and it is a surprising success at melding those two genres. However, like the studio’s earlier Coraline, I strongly suggest you be aware of the fright threshold of any kids you bring with you. While Coraline offered up whispered frights that would sneak up and crawl under your skin before nestling in your brain, ParaNorman tends towards the more overt scares of vintage 1970′s and 80′s horror films. It is also surprisingly effective at generating those scares, producing lots of genuine frights and emotionally intense sequences that more squeamish kids may have trouble with. Using stop-motion animation is extremely appealing for the subject matter, giving a real physicality to the characters and sets on screen. The slightly unreal movement that comes with stop-motion mates quite nicely with the zombies as well, and the filmmakers have already acknowledged their debt to the works of Ray Harryhausen and his memorable stop-motion undead characters. If nothing else, ParaNorman deserves to be seen by fans of the medium just for its quantum leap in technical skill, which sets an incredibly high bar for subsequent stop-motion movies to clear. As with Coraline, the design of the characters, costumes, and props are immensely enjoyable, mating the physicality of a live-action movie with a sense of exaggeration that animation can do more convincingly. Casting is also superb across the board, with Kodi Smit-McPhee’s sensitive performance successfully carrying the film in both its comedic and more serious moments. The supporting cast isn’t quite as developed as I might like (especially with Neil, who is played a bit too broadly), but they generally stay enough in the background to avoid derailing the film.
However, the best thing about ParaNorman is the way its theme of “not judging things by their appearances” finds its way into nearly every aspect of the movie’s plotting and characterization. On the surface, ParaNorman may look like a typical animated kids’ film driven by “learn to be yourself” self-actualization, and it is certainly a serviceable example of that extremely well-worn genre. However, the underlying theme of not being taken in by appearances is a lesson that everyone in the cast has to learn, including the title character, and it finds expression in everything from the big plot twists all the way down to a throwaway gag at the very end of the film. This yields a succession of surprises once the necessary exposition has been delivered in the movie’s first act, continuously keeping us off-guard in its second and third acts as every subconscious preconception we’ve been conditioned to expect is systematically upended. ParaNorman exploits the clichés and tropes of zombie movies and kids’ films by using one to subvert and undermine the other. That trait combined with the overriding theme make the entire film feel much more fresh and original than the sum of its component parts. I’m reluctant to even discuss very much of the plot for fear of giving something away inadvertently, but I will say that I was greatly refreshed by the movie’s sense of humanity, which ultimately transcends traditional good-vs.-evil stereotypes to make all its characters surprisingly sympathetic, even when we find them literally or figuratively monstrous.
I have mixed feelings about the movie’s use of 3-D. The sense of physicality is definitely one of the most appealing things about stop-motion as a medium, and at least in theory, this ought to make it especially well-suited for 3-D presentation. The usual complaint that the 3-D glasses make everything look darker and murkier also ends up working in ParaNorman‘s favor, since that fits and reinforces the movie’s primary aesthetic. However, while ParaNorman does minimize the use of gratuitous 3-D shots, I didn’t find its use of 3-D to be terribly memorable after the initial novelty wore off. It’s well done, but not essential.
Make sure to sit all the way through the end credits for a little Easter egg at the end showing a Norman puppet being built from nothing all the way to a finished character. It’s a time-lapse look at how much work goes into even the most minimal stop-motion animated film, and it’s wonderful to see all that hard work paying off so handsomely in the finished film.