ParaNorman (2012)

22 Jan


Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

I could say that “ParaNorman” is quite the unusual family entertainment, and you might think that, just by seeing the trailer and assuming that it’s a family-horror animated film. But a film like that isn’t unusual; it’s just sort of rare, is all (“Coraline,” the stop-motion film from three years ago, is an example—fittingly enough, this film is released by the same studio as that film). “ParaNorman” is actually one of three family-horror animated films released in 2012, followed by “Hotel Transylvania” and “Frankenweenie.” And to be honest, it will be interesting to see those other two measure up against “ParaNorman,” because this is one of my favorite films of the year. It’s fresh and inventive with extraordinary visuals, top-notch animation, and a clever blend of comedy, horror, and even drama.

The story centers around an odd little boy named Norman (voiced by Kodi Smit-McPhee) who “sees dead people.” Actually, he sees dead people almost everywhere. It’s not only his deceased grandmother, who watches zombie flicks in the living room with him (by the way, I love the zombie film that they watch in the beginning of this film—it’s such a clever sendup to the slow zombie and the dumb, screaming broad). Dead people are everywhere in Norman’s neighborhood—it’s a practical traffic jam of specters on his way to school. People think he’s weird—he’s picked on at school by a beefy bully (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) and even his family, especially his father (Jeff Garlin), doesn’t understand him. His only friend is an eccentric, overweight goofball named Neil (Tucker Albrizzi), who is also an outcast.

Norman is haunted by the ghost of his crazy uncle (John Goodman), who shared Norman’s gift. He warns Norman of an impending doom caused by a 300-year-old curse. The dead will raise and an angry spirit will awaken and destroy Norman’s New England hometown, which has historical ties to witchcraft (which they love to exploit). Of course, no one will believe him until things start to get crazy. Once the dead has risen, and zombies are roaming the town, it’s up to Norman and his band of misfits—which include Neil, the bully, Neil’s buff older brother (Casey Affleck), and Norman’s stuck-up older sister (Anna Kendrick)—to figure out a way to put an end to it.

The animation for “ParaNorman” is outstanding. Apparently, the makers of the film have mixed stop-motion figures and sets with CGI effects. The result is a visual treat from beginning to end. In particular, the visuals that stick out are those many ghostly figures that Norman bumps into in an opening scene (some here, some there—when you get the DVD for this film, it’s going to be fun to pause and look in the background); the trees that come alive in one of Norman’s psychic visions (yeah, I bet Sam Raimi wishes he tried this style for his “Evil Dead” movies, huh?); and the climax of the film in which Norman is jumping onto/dangling from pieces of ground that is falling through the earth to keep track of his mission. Everything seems to come alive in this film (which is strange, since the film is mostly obsessed with death).

“ParaNorman” is indeed obsessed with death, and its macabre elements are likely to disturb younger viewers, but delight older ones. (I’m not quite sure how kids are going to handle the scene in which Neil plays with his ghost dog, whom only Norman can see—the dog is split in half). And while the film has its share of comedic moments, it is rather dark and very sad, especially in the final half when we see exactly what caused this curse in the first place. It’s a real heavy issue, without giving too much away, but it’s done very well. I really cared for the story as it developed, and that really surprised me.

But “ParaNorman” isn’t a complete downer. It’s also very entertaining and very funny, especially in the scenes featuring the attacking zombies. Critics have stated that zombies have become more funny than scary (especially since “Zombieland”), and “ParaNorman” knows this. The zombies are slow and somewhat intimidating when they advance in a pack, but they’re also the butt of many jokes. For example, I love the gag in which Norman opens a door to see a growling zombie and as he’s about to approach, Norman quickly closes the door and the zombie’s teeth is stuck through the wood. And when he opens the door to leave, the zombie is hanging there like a door-knocker. That’s funny, but the best gag in the movie involves a race between an approaching zombie and a slowly-dispensing vending machine. And wouldn’t you believe it—instead of the townspeople panicking and running away from the beasts, they decide, “Hey, these things are dumb—let’s kill ‘em!” They get so vicious that the zombies are more scared of the humans, rather than vice versa. That’s brilliant, and it pays off later in the movie with how the townspeople during the Witch Trials long ago were reacting with fear because of something they don’t understand. Indeed, maybe these zombies aren’t the monsters after all—the always-reliable allegory of human nature is present here.

“ParaNorman” completely won me over with its ambition. I love how this film took chances in its story—giving us details about certain characters (especially that evil witch that haunts the sky in the final half), giving us great gags with these macabre elements, and blending in some legitimate drama that you’re surprised the filmmakers had the guts (or brains, so to speak) to deliver. Add all of that to captivating animated visuals and you have a film that is flowing with life, even though it features the walking dead.

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