It may only be mid August, but there’s already a new Halloween classic in town.
ParaNorman, the new stop-motion animation from Laika studios (the people behind Coraline), is a welcome late summer surprise and one of the most interesting films of the year thus far. The jokes are funnier and wittier than expected, the visuals surprisingly lovely and imaginative, and the story darker and deeper than is usually the case for a kid-friendly horror film.
Make no mistake about that either, while ParaNorman isn’t as sinister as say Gremlins or The Lady in the White, it has far more in common with those 80’s creep classics than it does with its current animated peers like Brave or Ice Age. I was openly surprised when one late-in-the-game plot twist vaguely reminded of 2006’s Silent Hill, right down to the presence of ghoul-girl spectacular, Jodelle Ferland. Chills aside, the film is tender and juicy where it counts. It doesn’t matter whether it’s brains or heart that’s your zombie cuisine of choice, ParaNorman serves up generous portions of both.
Young Norman’s hometown of Blithe Hollow looks sleepy on the outside, but it’s filled with daily terror for this monster-obsessed lad (Codi Smit-McPhee) with a real sixth sense. No, it isn’t the plethora of floating spectres he sees that’s causing Norman’s fear, it’s all the living people who can’t quite grasp his gift.
Dad (Jeff Garlin) openly worries and grumbles about his son’s increasing oddness, Norman’s more supportive mother (Leslie Mann) is still equally exasperated, and his sister doesn’t understand him at all. The only family who do see and accept the boy for who is are Grandma (Elaine Stritch) and Uncle Prenderghast (John Goodman); the problem is she’s a ghost who haunts the family sofa and he’s a reclusive bum with bad hygiene and the same accursed visions as his nephew.
School is no better, with the majority of students simply dismissing Norman while a select few, like the dopey lumpy Alvin (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) purposefully bully him. He’s got one living friend in pudgy Neil (Tucker Albrizzi), a cheerful, steadfast and self-proclaimed ‘fat kid’ who understands why he’s been targeted and has let it roll right off his broad shoulders. Norman is surly with Neil at first, until the boy expresses glee instead of horror at his friend’s ability to see and speak with the dead.
These opening passages of ParaNorman are a visual delight and a smooth entry into the story, which seems obvious and generic at first, but expresses intriguing nuance as it goes along. Directors Sam Fell and Chris Butler channel their inner monster-lovers and balance the early homages—like a grind-house zombie movie within a movie—with character development and carefully planted world-building details. Check out the behemoth station-wagon that the Babcock family drives or that creepy Puritan cemetery; they exist beyond set pieces and become fully-realized elements of Norman’s universe, whose gothic flourishes are external expressions of his own ostracized and kitschy viewpoint. One of the best early scenes features the boy framed between his mother’s flabby rear and his dad’s barrel gut as both loom over him with suffocating worry and disdain.
The character design is unique and expressive, and the hand-crafted quality adds to the drama. Like their first feature Coraline, the Laika studio uses ParaNorman to push the unqiue art of stop-motion in new, exciting directions. Norman’s unruly hair or Neil’s buoyant chipmunk cheeks define their personalities as much as their dialogue does. The town of Blithe Hollow is fascinatingly realistic, contrasting shabby suburban decay with a moldering ancient heritage, both evocatively framed and enhanced by carefully thought-out and mercifully subtle 3-D.
As the supernatural events of the story kick-in, everything Norman and the audience think they know about his hometown is thrown out the window, including the Hollow’s past regarding a witch trial that left the Puritan forefathers cursed. When Prenderghast charges Norman with preventing the witches curse from engulfing the town—he’s supposed to read passages from an old book—the young boy embraces his responsibility a tad too late, and suddenly zombies are mingling with town-folk to increasingly disastrous results. Norman and his new-found band of heroes—his sis, Neil, Neil’s dopey jock brother (Casey Affleck), and pain-in-the-neck Alvin—race to discover a way to defeat the witch and save the town, but luckily none of it as easy as all that, or as clear-cut and black-and-white.
The texture and tonal change in ParaNorman’s second half is what really sets the film apart for me and makes it more than a really good-looking horror lark. While this isn’t some preachy moralistic piece about acceptance and understanding, ParaNorman has some interesting and honestly deep things to say about forgiveness and redemption and how one deals with bullying and persecution. Those Puritan zombies aren’t dull brain munchers, but doomed souls who are looking for repentance and recoiling in their own horror at the sinkhole their beloved providence has become in 2012. That bothersome witch is far more frightening and unsettling than is initially suspected, and more tragic and complex too. Her final showdown with Norman is a thing of surreal beauty, a visual tour-de-force that aurally and visually reminds of scenes fromthe close of Darren Arronofsky’s The Fountain. It builds a captivating dichotomy between a world of psychological hurt and bitterness, writhing with electric pain, and one of solace, hope and eventual grace. These are not the typical emotions tapped in a monster comedy.
Horror movies often lose interest as they go because they often turn on pre-ordained events like killing the fearsome monster with a magical weapon, or slaughtering the zombies down to the last severed arm. Although some parents may balk at the supernatural and occult elements in ParaNorman, what’s admirable about the film is the way it ultimately cuts through the convenient uses of magic or ritual to dispense evil. The book of spells turns out to be no such thing, and the angry mob isn’t going to win the day; the darkness eating Blithe Hollow will only be forced back by choices rooted in the hearts of the characters. What a refreshing change to see an animated movie about a boy who sees the dead be so vibrant, moving and alive.
I suspect ParaNorman will hang around for many years to come, haunting us every October with plentiful cable repeats. It’s a fate the film certainly deserves.