Stop-motion animation has given rise to some of the most fun-for-kids-and-adults cinematic stories of the last few decades – most famously, The Nightmare Before Christmas. However, storyboard artist Chris Butler (Corpse Bride, Coraline) and animation director Sam Fell (Flushed Away) prove to be the perfect pairing to push the sub-genre of stop-motion feature-films to new boundaries with ParaNorman.
The story follows Norman (voice of Kodi Smit-McPhee), a young man treated like a freak due to his peculiar gift: he can see and communicate with the dead. Norman is resigned to his loner life until he meets a friend in Neil (Tucker Albrizzi), a boy at school who is also picked on, due to his weight. Things are looking up in Norman’s world until his crazy uncle Prenderghast (John Goodman) appears with an ominous proclamation: Norman must use his gift/curse to stop the ghost of a powerful witch, before she wreaks havoc on the town. With Colonial-era zombies in pursuit, Norman and Co. try to solve the centuries-old mystery of the ghost witch, and in doing so, uncover some startling secrets (literally) buried in the town.
ParaNorman is one of the most visually ambitious and impressive stop-motion movies I’ve ever seen. Combining traditional stop-motion techniques with CGI effects, detailed character models, and some surprisingly sophisticated direction, the movie is simply great to watch. Not only are the human characters lively and engaging – Butler and Fell make great choices for set pieces and sequences that are equally enjoyable, especially in the climatic third act, which showcases stunning visual composition and imagination.
In fact, though many might see it as a kids film, ParaNorman actually offers better directorial technique than a lot of today’s live-action films – certainly better than almost anything currently offered in the horror genre. It’s not often you find an animated film that has this level of intricate design in regards to angling, lighting, and scene composition; this movie does all that while also fitting in multiple homages to the styles and techniques of famous horror films/directors. If you’re a buff of the genre (or even a causal fan), there are plenty of fun Easter eggs for you to crack while watching.
The screenplay (written by Butler) offers a familiar storyline of the outcast learning (and proving) his own self-worth, but also manages to introduce some more serious ruminations on the psychology of young people dealing with the sometimes dark adolescent frustrations of acceptance and identity. In that same vein, ParaNorman often walks a fine line between poking fun at a scary and disturbing genre (horror), and actually being a scary and disturbing film. That’s to say: parents might want to think twice about the PG rating, as some of the material in the film is going to be too intense for kids below double-digit age. For example: a scene with Norman handling a fresh corpse will leave a disturbing impression on adults, let alone kids.
Voices in the cast include John Goodman, Jeff Garlin (Curb Your Enthusiasm), Leslie Mann (This is 40), Kodi Smit-Mcphee (The Road), Anna Kendrick (Up In the Air), Casey Affleck (Gone Baby Gone), and Christopher Mintz-Plasse (Superbad), and they all do a pretty good job. The younger cast members have the most screen time, and Kendrick is a standout as Courtney, Norman’s bow-hipped teen-queen sister. The primary group of young characters are all stock horror movie types with smart twists thrown in to keep you guessing; even secondary characters like the colonial-era zombies and the evil witch manage to be interesting spins on the usual tropes.
Admittedly, the first half of ParaNorman is much stronger than the latter half. Even clocking in at an efficient 93 minutes the film feels bloated – most notably in the slow transition between the second and third acts. Somewhere near the 2/3 mark, significant momentum is lost, as characters literally just hang around one locale, waiting for the inevitable climax to occur. That finish proves to be an uptick (visually, thematically, and emotionally) – but again, getting there could be a bit of a challenge for adults, as most of the latter second act rests on goofy slapstick sequences meant to keep the kids invested (lest they grow tired of the smart, rich, story that’s unfolding).
Despite some weak story beats, on the whole Paranorman proves that Laika Entertainment (which also made Coraline) is a studio that has some great talent, great ideas, and a bright future telling dark tales about uplifting and insightful life lessons. There’s still room for them to grow (say, to the level of Pixar), but like the eponymous character, there’s something delightfully odd and different about the way Laika goes about telling their brand of story.
ParaNorman is currently in theaters. It is Rated PG for scary action and images, thematic elements, some rude humor and language.