ParaNorman (2012)

It’s all fun and games until someone raises the dead.

In a year congested with computer generated family blockbusters such as Pixar’s Brave (2012), Disney’s Wreck-It-Ralph (2012), DreamWorks Animation’s Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted (2012), and Blue Sky Animation’s Ice Age: Continental Drift (2012), merely naming a few of the countless animated releases on offer, it’s a breath of fresh air when a studio comes out with something a little more unique, refreshing and unusual. Being let loose in the same year as Tim Burton’s less impressive stop-motion feature Frankenweenie (2012), ParaNorman is the follow up film from Laika, the studio that brought us the wonderfully inspiring Coraline back in 2009. Sharing similar themes with that of the Tim Burton feature Frankenweenie, ParaNorman may have gotten slightly lost or overlooked in the cluttered family entertainment market, which is a shame, as this film genuinely demonstrates the beauty, craft and sheer artistry on display within stop-motion animation, a somewhat lost form of art. Being pioneers at their craft, Laika step-up their game and bring this tedious style of animation to the next level with ParaNorman.

Set in the fictional town of Blithe Hollow, whose name is a mash-up of two other ghost stories: Noel Coward’s Blithe Spirit and Washington Irving’s The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, a quiet lonely boy by the name of Norman Babcock lives with his father Perry, his mother Sandra and his teenage sister Courtney. Norman has the ability to speak to the dead, but no one besides his eccentric, slightly overweight red-haired new friend, Neil Downe, believes that his gift is real. Norman’s schoolmates consider him a freak since he claims to have the power to speak to ghosts and he generally finds it difficult to make friends or relate to other kids. While most would consider this gift a curse, lonesome little Norman actually enjoys the company, conversation and well wishes from beyond the grave. The dead are pleasant enough and rarely do anything but greet and chitchat with Norman on a daily basis. Norman had lived amongst these spirits for many years, in peace, and they’d become an ordinary part of his day-to-day life, as one of Norman’s regular pastimes included watching horror films on television with his departed grandmother.

Proof that even the living can look undead at times!
Proof that even the living can look undead at times!

One day, Norman’s estranged eccentric uncle, Mr. Prenderghast, tells him of an important annual ritual he must take up to protect Blithe Hollow from a curse cast on the town by an apparent evil witch it condemned centuries ago. After much reluctance, Norman decides to cooperate, but things don’t go exactly according to plan. The school bully, Alvin, interrupts Norman during this vital reading ritual setting loose a magic storm of the witch, which threatens Blithe Hollow as the accursed dead rise and begin to invade the town. Together with several unexpected new companions, Norman attempts to save his town, only to discover the horrific truth behind the curse. With this new insight, Norman must resolve the crisis once and for all, as only he can, seeing as he has the ability to communicate with the dead.

First-time director Chris Butle, working from a script of his own creation, and third-time’s-a-charm hopeful Sam Fell, whose previous directorial credits include misfires Flushed Away (2006) and The Tale of Despereaux (2008), do a credible job in gaining narrative momentum and whip up a cast of fairly memorable characters but while doing so generally struggle to find that essential balance between kid-friendly and nightmare-inducing. Parents should view the film before allowing anyone under the age of eight to even attempt making it all the way through. Lightness and levity triumph but the dark is dark, and the scares and spooks are rather intense for a film predominantly targeted towards family audiences. With that said, older viewers will find ParaNorman to be an entertaining and charmingly creepy animated fright fest, and those who grew up on 70’s and 80’s horror pictures will get a real kick out of just how clever ParaNorman can be, as there are a tone of witty references and winks to horror films of yore including a delightfully spooky opening sequence that truly encapsulates late-night B-grade entertainment.

The story of ParaNorman, at times, is a tad rickety and clumsy, even though its unpredictable nature and few genuinely riveting surprises make up for this roadblock. The biggest highlight, though, is the scope and scale of the narrative as, much like CoralineParaNorman is rather ambitious in what it sets out to achieve. The tale being told is a small-town affair, but the utter magnitude of the film’s supernatural happenings are far grander than one would expect. Rampant storms, harrowing hauntings, rising evils, zombie assaults, high-speed van chases and otherworldly jaunts, all masterfully animated frame-by-frame, full of life even in undeath.

George A. Romero wouldn't have believed us if we told him that one day he'd be appealing to children!
George A. Romero wouldn’t have believed us if we told him that one day he’d be appealing to children!

The ensemble cast of characters are quite archetypical and nothing that havn’t already been thrust upon audiences innumerable times before, with the standard bully-type character in Alvin, Courtney, Norman’s older snobbish cheerleader sister, and Neil’s older brother, Mitch, the typical brainless jock. The vocal cast, which include relative newcomer Kodi Smit-McPhee, The Road (2009), as unlikely hero Norman, glossy fast-talker Anna Kendrick, Pitch Perfect (2012), as Courtney, Casey Affleck, Gone Baby Gone (2007), as the airheaded Mitch Downe, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Superbad (2007), playing against ‘nerdy’ typecast as Noramn’s tormenter Alvin, and John Goodman, Monsters Inc. (2001), voicing the screwball Mr. Prenderghast, all doing a credible job as they instill Norman and his unwitting cohorts with plenty of heart and humor, embodying these characters with genuine life, particularly in facing difficulty with determination and courage.

Although the vocal talent are rather lively in their delivery and portrayal, it’s the spirited and inventive Laika stop-motion animation team who truly embrace and enliven these characters. Using similar technology to that developed for Coraline, the film company Laika used 3D printers to generate all of the different faces needed for the characters. Having character faces printed, rather than hand sculpted or molded, allowed for more facial expressions to be created, as this process was faster, cheaper and gave the animators the ability to create thousands of expressions in a shorter period of time. For this picture, Laika acquired 3D colored printers which made it much easier for detail to be placed on character faces, as it was almost effortless for animators to generate a larger amount of detail on each individual face, seeing as the faces didn’t need to be hand painted after being printed. In Coraline, the title character has only few tiny freckles on her face, which were all hand-painted, while in ParaNorman for example, the character of Neil, whose face is covered with tiny freckles and other such details, was designed and painted on the computer before being printed. The movement and energy of the characters is extremely smooth and lifelike also, making the overall result a real achievement in stop-motion animation; the craft and sheer artistry on display here is quite remarkable, and it doesn’t take much for Laika to outshine whatever computer-generated ‘magic’ most other animation studios are churning out. Furthermore ParaNorman features a character whose design combines the use of stop-motion, computer generated and hand drawn animation all in one, and the film is certainly worth the sit through simply to see this superbly rare character come to life on screen.

Even stop-motion models are horrified by today's traffic conditions!
Even stop-motion models are horrified by today’s traffic conditions!

The design of the characters and town of Blithe Hollow is somewhat beautifully uneven and crooked, with almost no simple straight-line elements on any of the architecture or town’s folk, adding a dimension of quirky uniqueness to the picture. Gorgeously lit, with a fluorescent Dario Argento inspired nostalgic touch, cinematographer Tristan Oliver, Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009), is at the top of his game, being an expert in the craft of stop-motion shooting and lighting, having previously worked on many other stop-motion projects, such as the famous Wallace and Gromit shorts. Newcomer to scoring animated features Jon Brion, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004), conjures up an awesome 80’s retro horror style soundtrack, reminiscent of similar B-grade late night features, to accompany the extraordinary visuals, making the overall mood, atmosphere, look and design of ParaNorman undoubtedly a stop-motion triumph.

While by no means as unsettling as Coraline, ParaNorman certainly doesn’t feel like a film created for, or targeted toward, children, so parents out there wanting to entertain young ones for an hour-and-a-half, consider yourselves warned. While the look and design of the film is almost too much for the eye to take in with one viewing, the narrative itself sadly doesn’t offer anything overly exciting or innovative enough, story-wise, to honestly make viewers want to sit through ParaNorman a second time. Overall though, ParaNorman exists as a genuine stop-motion achievement, showcasing to audiences the magic of stop-motion animation, making them aware that the art form is still very much alive and can be just as effective and enchanting, or even more so, than the conventional computer generated servings that have become all too tiresome and familiar.

3 / 5 – Good

Reviewed by S-Littner

ParaNorman is released through Universal Pictures Australia