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Theatrical Review: “ParaNorman”

Directed by: Sam Fell, Chris Butler
Produced by: Travis Knight, Arianne Sutner
Written by: Chris Butler (screenplay), Arianne Sutner, Stephen Stone (story)
Cinematography by: Tristan Oliver
Music by: Jon Brion
Starring: Kodi Smit-McPhee, Tucker Albrizzi, Anna Kendrick, Casey Affleck, John Goodman, Leslie Mann, Jeff Garlin, Jodelle Ferland, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Elaine Stritch, Bernard Hill, Jodelle Ferland, Tempestt Bledsoe, Hannah Noyes, Ariel Winter
Year: 2012

 

There are several things that I admire about this movie that I’m just going to highlight from the outset:

  1. The animation is impressive. I have no idea how they pulled off the visually (not to mention emotionally) charged ending effects, but I would really like to see the featurette on the home release on that.
  2. Getting back to the emotion, there are moments in the film that feel stunningly authentic, and that ending really does pay off.
  3. The filmmakers largely stayed away from obvious pop culture horror references that would be so prevalent in so many big studio film efforts. There are some, one of which is revealed in the trailers (“You want to play hockey?”) and another that is a lot more subtle than this (Norman’s ringtone is from The Exorcist), but, for the most part, the film is a much calmer, more self-contained experience than it could have been.

I lead into this review with those points because I don’t want to sound like I didn’t enjoy this film, because that wouldn’t necessarily be true. The fact of the matter, however, is that for all the things this film excels at, there are several things that hold it back for me from being the apparent critical darling that Rotten Tomatoes would suggest that ParaNorman is.

ParaNorman is yet another one of those stories about being a unique person in a world that doesn’t appreciate or even shuns those who are unique. In Norman’s case, he sees dead people. Unlike the lead in The Sixth Sense, however, Norman seems to have already resolved himself to this fact and even has regular, casual (if somewhat uneasy) relationships with the ghosts that inhabit his small town, including his grandmother, who apparently is a hobbyist knitter, since nobody in her family would be able to wear any of her spectral garments. The scene where Norman walks to school and greets town residents long since passed on is an amusing little highlight of the film, and hints at a film that doesn’t quite meet those standards.

Though Norman has learned to cope with his unusual gift, sparing us of any Bruce Willis-type characters from invading the story, nobody else believes him, and Norman’s relationship with his classmates and still-living family members is rocky at best, with the school bully, Alvin, and Norman’s father being the primary sources of his grief. When Norman starts having visions of a bygone era when his town used to execute people accused of being witches, however, Norman’s sanity is seemingly on the edge of collapsing, and even Norman starts to question whether his unique ability is a gift or a curse.

Of course, this being a family film, the answers to these questions are already fairly obvious, and, sure enough, the importance of Norman’s abilities are soon put to the test, as the 300th anniversary of the town’s witch execution is approaching, and Norman’s visions of the witch hunts turns out to be an omen of the witch’s curse, a fact that is explained by Norman’s estranged uncle, who shares Norman’s gifts and was similarly thought to have lost his mind. According to him, Norman must take his place in ritually reading a book at the witch’s grave before each anniversary, but his uncle dies before all can be explained, and his ghostly apparition is just as unclear and manic as he was in life, providing Norman with only the basic idea of what to do, a mistake that eventually unleashes a zombie infestation upon the town as the witch’s curse takes effect.

ParaNorman is admirable in that it commits to the macabre B-movie atmosphere (this will probably be too scary for some kids) while simultaneously turning it on its severed head a bit, with the townsfolk being just as bloodthirsty as your average zombie, kids included. It’s a funny little change that is in line with the symbolism of films like Dawn of the Dead, which had a similar sympathy for its ghoulish creatures. This perspective is wonderfully played out in ParaNorman with a truly tragic and touching reveal about the events that led up to this curse that, naturally, Norman is able to personally relate to, and it’s moments like this and the sombre stroll to school that could have made ParaNorman a truly fantastic animated feature had this tone been carried on throughout the film.

Unfortunately, the filmmakers at Laika, the company who also brought us the thoroughly stunning Coraline, never seem to settle on a tone for their film, with ParaNorman lumbering around between morose coming of age story and a silly, joke-laden parody. Characters like the dramatic arts teacher and the sassy female cop feel played out and aren’t exactly hilarious, and the film lingers a bit too long on shots where already familiar or obvious punchlines are delivered, further disarming their already diminished capability of inducing laughs. It’s not that there aren’t any laughs to be had here — I found the gag of a little girl lighting her teddy bear on fire and using it as an instrument of destruction unusually amusing, and Norman’s slapstick attempts to wrestle the aforementioned book from his uncle’s cold dead hands are pretty good, too — but the film is at its best when it’s focusing on being uniquely macabre for a “kid’s” film, as well as when it’s being more emotionally honest without the need to spell it all out, as in the painfully preachy speeches the characters make on the Town Hall steps. 

Luckily, that truly stunning and moving climax at the witch’s grave save the movie from its cliches. Up until that point, the little star-rating gauge in my head was starting to wane from an entertaining 3.5 to a disappointing 2.5, but that ending truly does save the film and moves it back up in quality in my own mind. Those are, of course, just numbers — there’s a lot to love in here, and that’s because a lot of love has been poured into the film, and the new 3D printing techniques used on the character models result in some of the more unique character designs you’ll see in a stop motion animated film. If you only look at the screenshots, there are moments where you’d swear it was just high quality CG animation, but ParaNorman proves that there’s still a place and a lot of innovation to be had with the stop motion technique.

And though some of the characterizations are a bit overdone (the confident fat kid sidekick was better in Monster House), the performances of the cast are quite good, and the filmmakers aren’t afraid to make them do mean things — there’s a scene where Norman’s dad is storming into the house and says something towards his son that is truly shocking to hear in a family film, but helps to provide Norman’s pain a more realistic grounding to go along with his fantastical gifts.

Even if I somehow sounded too hard on this film, I still think it’s worthwhile to see in theatres, and I hear that the 3D is great, too — the free passes I had to this particular theatre didn’t cover the upcharge, and so I saw it in 2D, which was still great to look at. It’s possible that the film that I wanted just made the one we got that much more disappointing, but the flaws are really hard to overlook and keep this movie from achieving classic status. It’s likely going to go down as a cult classic befitting its B-movie inspirations and will likely continue to live on in the home media and rental markets long after you and I will have passed on.

The Viewer’s Commentary Rating: 3 / 5

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