In the vein of iconic monster/adventure properties like The Monster Squad, Scooby-Doo even The Iron Giant comes Laika’s follow-up to their hit film Coraline. ParaNorman, is a fantastically intricate stop-motion (or “stop-frame” to you film fans in the UK) animated film that follows Norman, a young boy who is more than a little obsessed with the macabre…he can actually see and communicate with ghosts. He takes it all in stride but is most definitely an outcast but like all great outcasts, he’s destined to save the day because of his eccentricities. It’s a common story but from the mind of Chris Butler, this more or less familiar theme is spun just enough and is ‘wonky’ enough to become a rather compelling and highly distinctive genre mashing fare.
ParaNorman was inspired by, among 80’s classics like The Goonies and many Amblin era films but this story, a sort of John Carpenter meets John Hughes, looks like all of the its inspirations were thrown in a blender and the product was this deliciously fun film. Besides the nods to and framework of the the films that this derives inspiration from, ParaNorman is a film with a lot going on and mostly it comes down to themes. So many in fact, there’s almost a theme for every zombie or pitchfork running through this frenzied film. There’s a loner/social outcast theme, a bully theme, a distant/misunderstood family theme, and then of course the tropes and set ups to make this a simultaneous horror/comedy/family film (though regarding the inherent degree of horror, even in “claymation”, is not an automatic recommendation for little kids). But as odd as the events depicted and the hats worn in the picture, this hybrid, for lack of a better word, works.
Starting the film with homages, like the simply spot on and great B-Movie/Grindhouse send up, it’s clear where Chris Butler’s head was when creating this story. Then minute by minute ,while paving its own way, there are countless callbacks to things that are not just nods to films of old but help give ParaNorman a very nostalgic feeling film. It’s almost timeless (in fact it would be if it weren’t for cell phones) and is like Norman Rockwell via the Wonder Years via Edward Scissorhands. Odd that it was a Brit that penned such a universally American feeling story but no matter. It’s a story that can be both cheery but gloomy, funny but horrific and it’s a tightrope walk to the finish line. If you not laughing at the nods to horror classics or some highbrow attempts at low brow humor you’ll be shocked at the level of, well, shocks a stop-motion film can give you. It’s spooky, atmospheric but also captivating and fun.
Voice acting in animated films has gotten better just as the animation itself has grown by leaps an bounds. Just 5 years ago, the draw to an animated film (CG or otherwise) seemed to be just the caliber of A-lister attached. Now that animated films are way more abundant the idea here is not the who, but more who’s right for the character. In this respect, Butler and Fell’s inspired casting nearly outshines their superior animation efforts. Kodi Smit-McPhee simply nails the role of Norman but as great as his turn in the titular role, he’s given help form an amazing supporting cast. One great take away from the film is that while the rag tag team of misfits saving the day looks like something you’ve seen before, the cast is really quite the opposite. Having the likes of Casey Affleck playing a jock and Christopher Mintz-Plas (McLovin!) as a bully are both brilliant casting choices but also just outside the typical sort of casting that. Instead each non-typical voice in the film gives their character immense depth and emotion.
With all the great animation and wonderfully dreary character designs, the story has a real message and this is not just a film to bring in the kids (again this isn’t recommended for kids under say 10 at the very least). There is a series of morals that as subtle as a brick or an after-school special run the gamut from all you need is love, to friendship is its own reward to go easy on the little guy/odd ball to believing in yourself. Yet, in what could be called a bold move for a so called kids movie, is the idea that those who don’t learn from the past are doomed to repeat it. Further this notion is brilliantly expanded upon by showing that it’s not zombies who are monsters but the humans in general. In an absurd but original approach we find sympathy for the zombies. It’s a nice turn to show that people are crazier and more evil than the walking dead and how fear leads us to very rash decisions. Moreover, if we don’t snap out of our knee-jerk attitudes and try to learn about the things that scare us, we too will give into fear becoming monsters ourselves. It’s a bit heavy handed and force-fed but still an entirely universal message.
The challenges Norman faces are bound to be understood by most kids which is just one of the ways that the films’ story transcends the setting. In a film void of anything with a pulse Chris Butler and Sam Fell place the macabre events against the backdrop of very tangible and empathetic human element. Yet ParaNorman is not a story about feeling bad for the main (or any) character. It’s about following someone on a journey while the whole time championing the idea that “it’s OK to be who you are”. Yet another in the countless “a hero will rise” narrative storytelling, what really sets ParaNorman apart is the method in which the story is told. It’s a likable bunch of more or less oddballs and rejects who band together and beyond that it’s the artistic merit that really takes this to another level. From impressive chase scenes, to colorful story to incredibly detailed scenery and entirely unique set/character design, ParaNorman is a real treat.
ParaNorman being released in theaters in the Summer might be an odd draw but then again who says a film like this must have a release in October? It’s a genre film but one that doesn’t have to be held to a holiday or particular time of year, especially with the themes and messages it touts. Laika Animation has created something magical and to say their efforts in animation are outstanding would be selling it way short. What is perhaps a benchmark in stop-frame films, ParaNorman looks to have raised the bar for this medium. Laika’s animation team has showed its immense talent for subtlety and (in a film that took 2 1/2 years) patience. The payoff is huge and just about as triumphant and impressive as the finale. But when the Goosebumps-esqe yarn’s morally drenched ending wraps everything up a little too neatly it’s of little consequence since everything leading up to it is still a wild ride that is very much worth the price of admission. Finally, and proving to be another distinction and feather in the cap of this ambitious film, the 3D, (rather the Stereoscopic 3D) actually adds something to the efforts making this calendar specific film a win anytime of the year.