Review: ‘ParaNorman’ (a paranormal mystery family film that doesn’t pull its Halloween punch)

A smart, contemporary monster movie that doesn’t talk down to its young or adult audience.

Meet Norman, a skinny middle school kid that everyone thinks is a freak because he claims he can talk to the dead. In a New England town that celebrates but doesn’t believe in witches and zombies, the 300th anniversary of a Puritan witch trial sets the stage for a supernatural showdown. Only Norman can see events for what they really are, but can he set things right and end the curse for all time before the panicking townspeople of Blithe Hollow fall victim to their resident witch’s revenge?

Written and directed by Chris Butler (who has previous credits with both Corpse Bride and Coraline), ParaNorman is about fear of the unknown and how people react to deal with it. The film introduces us to a young man who is how he is, a lover of monster movies who happens to be able to see and talk to the dead. He doesn’t hide his ability and speaks about it with a child’s openness, a fact others see as a way of getting attention in spite of the fact Norman cherishes being left alone. Rather than simply introducing a misunderstood hero who happens to have the special skill needed to save the day, the story builds on the idea to shape the world and the plot, taking a conventional Monster Squad type plot device (take this here, do that, and all’s well) and giving it a spectacular yet heartfelt twist.

Most films in this genre, including other spooky stop-motion animated flicks, are often set in worlds of their own unique design that hint at or poke fun of our own. ParaNorman is unique that care has been taken to make it feel very modern, from using a cell phone screen as a flashlight to exploiting a town legend into a blatant tourist trap. While some of the influences feel a little dated (break dancing, the classic “woody” station wagon, the teen mystery van), they are also classic staples of the genre. The witch and graveyard effects are computer enhanced but appropriately grand to escalate the visuals from mere Night of the Living Dead to full on Poltergeist spectacle.

A note on the stop motion animation here; why bother? Because it looks unique. Sure it takes more time, but there’s both an inherent creepiness and organic feel to it that computer generated images come close to but still feel different from. In both animation forms, every character, set, and prop has to be created, but while computers are getting faster rendering scenes for changes, every frame of a stop motion picture must be staged and photographed one frame at a time. In either case, a lot of time must be devoted to how to put it all together, but it’s still breathtaking to walk onto a soundstage and see a single frame of film waiting to be shot rather than a suite of computer hooked up to a wall of monitors.

The voice cast boasts a horror pedigree, from Kodi Smit-McPhee as Norman himself to Christopher Mintz-Plasse as school bully Alvin (and that’s a fun change of pace for him). Rounding out the ususal suspects in the cast is Tucker Albrizzi (typical fat kid), Anna Kendrick (typical sister), Casey Affleck (typical jock), Leslie Mann (mom again), Jeff Garlin (everybody’s dad), Elaine Stritch (everybody’s grandma), Bernard Hill (a zombie judge!), Jodelle Ferland (a witch!), Tempestt Bledsoe (doing her best Wanda Sykes impression), and the always entertaining John Goodman (as everyone’s weird uncle). Some scenes may be a bit intense for the very young (or very old) and the language may seem less sanitized than the banal Diary of a Wimpy Kid, but the level of contrast achieved by putting Norman in the real world makes its paranormal counterpart even more wondrous, and that’s the place every kid (young or old) secretly wants to be.

(a three and a half skull recommendation out of four)


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