Review: Laika's 'ParaNorman' Succeeds on Absolutely Every Level
by Jeremy Kirk
August 17, 2012
You don't have to be a fan of the horror genre to enjoy ParaNorman, the newest, stop motion, animated film from Laika Entertainment, the studio that brought us Coraline. It helps, but the film combines such a unique blend of awe-inducing animation, realistic but very colorful characters, and underlying story of isolation and an inability to fit in with the world that it stands on its own merits. ParaNorman is the best animated film of the year, both a visionary trip and emotional journey that has a very firm hand in the horror world that fans of the genre will both recognize and respect in the tribute being given.
Kodi Smit-McPhee voices Norman Babcock, a boy who has a very interesting gift. He is able to speak with and see the ghosts of the dead. Being the only one with this ability, Norman finds himself lost in his own world, unable to connect with the very real and very much alive people around him including his family; father, mother, and sister voiced by Jeff Garlin, Leslie Mann, and Anna Kendrick. The boy makes due with this situation the best he can, but things take a turn for the more difficult when he finds himself facing a centuries-old curse a witch cast on the small community in which he lives. Zombies begin rising, the people in his town begin mobbing, and Norman must take it upon himself to set things back to normal. At least as normal as things can be in his world.
ParaNorman, written by Chris Butler and co-directed by Butler and Sam Fell, is a film about the dead, but it finds its heart and soul almost effortlessly. Telling a story of an isolated and lonely child who has a stronger connection with the dead than he does the living seems a natural choice. It isn't as if this is the first time a story like this has been told. Tim Burton's Beetlejuice did a fine job building a story around a similar character, but as that film's dark edge and anti-Suburbia sentiment bled through hard, the themes in ParaNorman are presented in a way that's both pleasant and adventurous.
The choice of telling this story with stop motion animation has a strong hand in that. ParaNorman is a family movie, and even with witches and zombies and ghosts and bullies like Alvin, voiced perfectly by Christopher Mintz-Plasse, on the prowl, the film never even hints at going somewhere darker. It's dark subject matter, for sure, but there's a comfort in knowing no matter how much this film pushes its edges, it's going to work out in the end.
That doesn't mean the journey can't be an exciting one, and Butler and Fell do their best at keeping the pace always moving forward. Not a moment of boredom seeps into ParaNorman's cracks. It hardly even has any cracks, and this is an element that ends up hurting the film in the end. As fast-paced and continuous as the film's momentum is, it starts to run out of room, the final three or four scenes all ending on big beats, as if the film's is coming to a close. Too much adventure is always better than not enough with this kind of movie, so it's a minor quibble. Nonetheless, a little breathing room earlier in the film could have helped.
It's not as if Butler and Fell didn't have great characters to work with here. Every character in the film offers something to the landscape, provides some bit of color needed for the whole picture to work. Tucker Albrizzi voices Neil, a kid who wants to be Norman's friend and whose invite for Norman to play hockey makes for arguably the funniest gag in the film. Many of the other characters fill horror genre tropes, the jock and the ditzy blonde being chief among them. ParaNorman is essentially a zombie movie, and Butler and Fell have filled it with fresh takes on the characters we know and love. They even end up giving some of the characters surprising reveals, some of which could be deemed envelope-pushing. Whether you do or not, you have to applaud them for having the guts to through with one reveal in particular.
The animation is worthy of every bit of applause it receives, as well. Stop motion animation has always had a choppy quality, the stop-start-stop palpable in the film's we've seen incorporate it so far. With ParaNorman, the digital run-through the film has undergone makes the stop motion smooth, ceaseless at certain points. The result looks 100%, digitally created and so polished that it could easily pass for PIXAR work. It's a common comparison, but they're still the king. The characters and locations in ParaNorman bring a depth and weight to the physical look of everything that even computer animation can't achieve.
That's just one of many reasons why ParaNorman is such an astounding achievement in animated film. It not only tells a story with heart and depth, it does so with a style of animation that has never looked this good. In stop motion's history, you could tell the time and effort spent by how choppy the action was, how many different movements it took to bring that character to life. With this film, all of that has been buffed over and made smooth, but you know the time and effort were still put in. The same can be said for every other aspect to ParaNorman, a charming film and possibly the most engaging adventure of the Summer. There's even extra there for horror fans.
Jeremy's Rating: 9 out of 10