ParaNorman is an extraordinary film, a benchmark of stop motion style. It’s always a danger to make grandiose claims like that. No critic wants to be remembered as the guy who gushed that I Am Legend is “one of the greatest movies ever made.” And I’m certainly not saying that, but ParaNorman is refreshing. It’s such a heartfelt throwback to an earlier era, I feel confident that it will stand the test of time with other modern animated classics as The Nightmare Before Christmas and Coraline. Because it deals in horror, ParaNorman recalls those predecessors, but it brings innovation to the genre.
The story is simple enough. 11-year old Norman Babcock watches an old zombie movie on TV while his grandma sits on the couch. The problem? Norman’s grandma has been dead for years. His family laments his inability to behave like a normal well-adjusted kid. But the truth is, he really can see and speak with spirits. Norman is a misfit. His friend at school, a rotund, redhead named Neil Downe, is a bit of a outcast as well. They’re residents of the New England town of Blithe Hollow, known for witch burnings in the 1700s. Turns out Norman’s ability just might be the one thing that can save the town from a centuries-old curse. The stop-motion animation studio behind ParaNorman is Laika, Inc. They’re clearly a contemporary force to be reckoned with. This is only their second feature as they also created the exemplary Coraline in 2009.
The cast is perfection. The production goes one step further and has them articulate roles that are diametrically opposed to the persona they play in real life. For example Mitch, a bodybuilding airhead, and Alvin, the school bully, are given life by actors that are nothing like those descriptions. Talented actors whose voice may sound familiar, but aren’t easily identifiable. I think the most effective performances radiate personality but aren’t so recognizable that you’re reminded of who it belongs to. For that reason, I won’t “out” the players involved. I’ll simply say each actor gives a vitality to their respective character.
I appreciate a more subversive edge in my so-called children’s entertainment. There’s often a hyperactive quality in cartoons that equates frantic with funny. I appreciated ParaNorman‘s subtler moments that cultivated a quieter tone. There is a genuine attempt to entertain adults with humor much in the same way that Rango did in 2011. Once again, an animated picture has the novelty to be ugly. ParaNorman is part of a grand tradition of the macabre that is reminiscent of the work of Roald Dahl, Edward Gorey and Lemony Snicket. These artistes employ a sinister atmosphere that cut through the treacle of children’s entertainment. ParaNorman combines unconventional wit and spooky overtones with just enough warmth to shoehorn in a message when you aren’t looking. If I have gripe, it’s that the climax drags a little with an ending that isn’t quite as streamlined as the rest of the story. I found myself checking my watch during the protracted conclusion. But that’s more a testament to the superiority of everything that came before. ParaNorman is among the best of 2012. I loved this film.
Note: Stay until after the credits for a sped up scene that briefly shows the labor involved in creating the puppet of Norman.