Sunday, January 20, 2013

ParaNorman Movie Review

Laika Entertainment is filling the niche of animated features intended for children who are a little more grown up. Their first two films, Corpse Bride and Coraline, are darker and more macabre than the fare churned out by the other big animation studios (although Dreamworks, Disney, and Pixar produce some fantastic animated films). Laika’s third feature, released earlier this year and just recently nominated for the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature, is ParaNorman, an equally light macabre story that is great family fun if you leave it the youngest and most impressionable members of your clan unless they can handle ghost, zombies and scary witches.

Third-grader Norman Babcock (voiced by Kodi Smit-McPhee) has a special gift that allows him to see and communicate with ghosts. They tend to be ghosts who still have some reason for sticking around. Directed by Chris Butler and Sam Fell, ParaNorman is like a less creepy and scary, more adventurous, animated version of The Sixth Sense. Poor little Norman, he’s even called ‘freak’ at school and picked on by the neighborhood bully, Alvin (Christopher Mintz-Plasse). His sister (Anna Kendrick) only has time to think about the muscle head hunk (Casey Affleck) whose younger brother is the comic relief fat kid Neil (Tucker Albrizzi). Norman is so accustomed to talking to dead people that he casually mentions that grandma had a question while watching TV and on his way to school he greets a dozen or so people that no one else can see.

The town crazy old codger Mr. Prenderghast (John Goodman), who happens to be Norman’s uncle, apparently also has the same gift. Norman’s parents (Jeff Garlin and Leslie Mann) advise him not to get mixed up with him. But Prenderghast insists that Norman continue the actions he apparently has taken year after year to keep the Blithe Hollow witch at bay. An old town legend has it that a witch was killed by the townspeople 300 years earlier and now she comes back to haunt every year – or so she would were it not for Prenderghast’s reading her a bedtime story to keep her asleep for another year.

Butler and Fell provide the story with some really great set pieces and some awfully good humor. I took issue with a couple of questionable moments in the script as when Neil professes that bullies are a natural part of childhood. I don’t doubt that most kids feel that way, especially kids as heavy as Neil, but to put it out there in what is essentially a children’s story that being bullied is a normal part of being a kid feels a little irresponsible. Also a reference made by Norman’s dad to something being “limp-wristed hippie garbage” stands out to my (perhaps a touch too PC) ears. Did he really just refer to an idea he doesn’t care for as basically being gay? Butler should have had more care in his screenplay, although to his great credit, a major character is revealed in the end to have a same sex partner. This announcement is not met with derision or contempt, but is treated as a normal part of life, even while it’s ironically disappointing to another character.

The real source of delight in the film is Norman himself, who might be the most sadly morose animated hero ever to hit the big screen. It’s a lovely departure from the Disney model of cheer, wonder and amazement. Not that there’s no wonder to behold in this film, with some truly incredible artistry put into the models and puppets that make up this stop-motion animation. There is great detail in the set design, from the odd and skewed angles to the monster decorations that adorn Norman’s bedroom. The story itself doesn’t quite push past the level of Pixar’s output, for example, but at least there’s an attempt to provide something a little bit darker, drearier, and morbid.

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