REVIEW: ParaNorman [2012]

Score: 9/10 | ★ ★ ★ ½

Rating: PG | Runtime: 92 minutes | Release Date: August 17th, 2012 (USA)
Studio: Laika Entertainment / Focus Features
Director(s): Chris Butler & Sam Fell
Writer(s): Chris Butler

“He’s probably up there fiddling with his Wee-Jah or his orbs …”

LAIKA, Inc., the little studio with big dreams in Oregon is officially more than a flash in the pan success story that brought to life a critically acclaimed feature film before scaling back to commercials and music videos. Using a beacon in the stop-motion animation world like Henry Selick to adapt and direct Coraline showed the vision to take chances on darker material than most may want to expose their children to and they were rewarded for the challenge. Knowing survival couldn’t exist solely through Selick, however—he also directed their first short film Moongirl four years previously—it was time to start building their own Pixar-like team of writers and directors not yet as ubiquitous as a Bird or Lasseter. For Chris Butler and Sam Fell, ParaNorman will be a coming out party to prove LAIKA has the staying power to compete with the big boys.

A storyboard artist on the aforementioned Coraline and Selick collaborator Tim Burton‘s Corpse Bride, Butler gets the chance to bring his imaginative town of Blithe Hallow to life. Co-directing with Fell—who helmed Flushed Away and The Tale of Despereaux—Butler’s story exists in a darkly magical fantasy world similar to the studio’s Oscar-nominated debut while possessing a welcome streak of whimsy to counter the not-so-kid-friendly zombies at its plot’s back. Containing a sophistication rarely seen outside of Pixar, ParaNorman‘s story never takes the easy way out despite fundamentally being about little more than a young boy bullied by a town fearful he’s different. An eventual rabbit hole descent to a parallel plane of consciousness refuses to pander by instead providing the horror, suspense, and nightmarish visuals necessary when the vengeful acts of an angry, remorseless witch are put on display.

Norman Babcock (Kodi Smit-McPhee) is his Middle School’s “freak” not as a result of being a loner geek who loves scary movies, but because he can talk to the dead. A casual morning shows the prevalence of ghosts not yet ready to move on or caught in stasis due to an abrupt demise in the boy’s daily life as his passed grandma (Elaine Stritch) sits crocheting on the family couch while roadkill, deceased pets, and even gangsters literally swimming with the fishes litter the streets with cordial “Hellos”. So, when bullies like Alvin (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) or even his dad (Jeff Garlin) catch him talking to thin air, the giggling or embarrassment in response is unsurprising. Norman’s true friends don’t exist while the ones who should care and compassionately understand his eccentricities simply stand by as the world labels him a pariah.

Blithe Hallow isn’t without its own proclivities or history of those with inhuman powers, though. Built upon a centuries-old curse of a witch (Jodelle Ferland) executed by seven citizens rendered undead for their trouble in order to know what it’s like to be hunted and vilified, the town’s shops are littered with Halloween-type decor to satisfy outside curiosity and give inhabitants a legacy to feed. More than a story for Mrs. Henscher (Alex Borstein) to lead students in a yearly performance, however, the curse itself is very real and held in check only by a lineage of ghost whisperers able to prevent it. Finally starting to wish he could be normal, the arrival of Norman’s crazed uncle Mr. Prenderghast (John Goodman) brings knowledge he is next in line to keep the witch’s wrath at bay. Tasked with saving the town by sunset, Norman’s roller coaster of an adventure begins.

With an unorthodox group of cohorts unwittingly caught up in the horror through their proximity to the boy, the resulting race to find the witch’s grave brings a ton of laughs with its heartwarming tale of acceptance. Big sister Courtney (Anna Kendrick) is materialistic to a Valley Girl extreme; Alvin’s a perfect mix of insecurity and over-confidence as a coping mechanism; new friend Neil (Tucker Albrizzi) is a bundle of cute nerves with his own desire to be more than “the fat kid”; and High School heartthrob Mitch (Casey Affleck) portrays a doltish oaf happily feeding into the stereotype on multiple levels. Each character plays its role accordingly so that we rally behind Norman’s unlikely hero and hope his widely known expertise on the dead can convert his detractors into appreciating the selfless job thrust upon him.

Visually stunning, every aspect of the film has been handcrafted in a slightly skewed, fully charming way. Mrs. Babcock’s (Leslie Mann) completely asymmetrical face kept conjuring images of the off-kilter animation style from “Duckman” while the disproportionate body of Mitch and the brilliantly decomposed zombies had me admiring the unique look and feel fearlessly brought to life. Details like the Babcock’s bright blue, octagonal eyes or the not-so-straight lined borders of school lockers show the level of care and precision used to create its distorted familiarity as well as the impurities of true artisans unabashedly letting their imperfections shine as character rather than mistake. And when it comes time to add an atmospherically otherworldly glow to the dead or a spectacular, electric yellow to the climactic manifestation of the town’s powerful destroyer, no effect appears out of place.

The zombie moments can potentially frighten children—parents should note the film is PG, not G—but an opening homage to B-movie monsters and shoddy production value should ease minds to the artifice at play. If anything, the malicious townsfolk grabbing shotguns, bats, and bowling balls are the real terror as mob-mentality rules the day to mirror the vitriol thrown Norman and Neil’s way at school. ParaNorman educates against bullying and shows how those we deem odd are just as special and potentially heroic as we see ourselves. Mixing great comedic performances of its voice cast, lessons of compassion veiled within the adventure, and an artistic wealth of visual splendor, I see LAIKA once again engaging in a photo finish with Pixar at this year’s Oscars. The heavyweight prevailed with Up back in 2010, but next Spring’s outcome may just turn the tables.

[1] While brushing his teeth, Norman pretends that he is a zombie in PARANORMAN, directed by Sam Fell and Chris Butler, the new comedy thriller from LAIKA and Focus Features. Credit: LAIKA, Inc.
[2] (l to r.) Courtney (voiced by Anna Kendrick), Norman (voiced by Kodi Smit-McPhee), Alvin (voiced by Christopher Mintz-Plasse), Neil (voiced by Tucker Albrizzi), and Mitch (voiced by Casey Affleck) hit the road – and something else – in ParaNorman, the new 3D stop-motion comedy thriller from LAIKA and Focus Features, directed by Sam Fell and Chris Butler. Credit: LAIKA
[3] Norman (voiced by Kodi Smit-McPhee) searches through Mr. Prenderghast’s house in ParaNorman, the new 3D stop-motion comedy thriller from LAIKA and Focus Features, directed by Sam Fell and Chris Butler. Credit: LAIKA, Inc.

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