Guest Movie Review: ParaNorman
If one thing could be said about 2012 so far, it’s that it hasn’t been the best year for animated films. That might seem like an empty statement (how often can we expect films like Wall-E or Beauty and the Beast come out regularly, after all?), but what I really mean is that much of the animated fare this year has so far failed to live up to the high standards of years past. The Lorax, Ice Age: Continental Drift, Madagascar 3 and The Pirates: Band of Misfits were all decent movies, but nothing special. And while Pixar’s latest effort Brave will walk away with loads of awards this winter, the “Disney Princess”-like story is also arguably the studio’s weakest non-Cars effort. It’s not too late for a turnaround; with half the year still left, there could be a few surprises in store from Sony’s Hotel Transylvania, Dreamworks’ Rise of the Guardians, and Disney’s twin efforts Frankenweenie and Wreck-It Ralph. All it would take is one legitimately great animated film at the theater to kick off this trend.
That film might be ParaNorman, the sophomore production by the stop-motion studio Laika. For those of you unfamiliar with the relatively-new company, Laika was responsible for the 2009 Academy Award-nominated Coraline and quickly became known for tackling mature, intelligent material that larger studios were unwilling to pursue. In fact, ParaNorman was originally a movie pitched to Disney in the 1980’s, but only found a home recently. That’s to Laika’s benefit, as I have a difficult time imagining the larger, family-friendly empire having done the wonderful story here justice. In it, young Norman Babcock (Kodi Smit-McPhee) is a shy, misunderstood boy who happens to be able to speak with the spirits of the dead. Nobody believes he actually has this power, and it has caused no shortage of difficulties in communicating with his frustrated family, or with the bullies at school who ceaselessly tease him. When told that his unique ability is all that can stop a witch’s curse from raising the dead in his Massachusetts town, Norman is of course skeptical. But when the curse does indeed manifest, it’s up to Norman and his small band of unlikely allies to save the town and remove the 100-year-old evil for good.
Where Laika and ParaNorman excel is in the story. Far from playing it safe and pandering to young children and over-protective parents, directors Chris Butler and Sam Fell’s emphases on bullying and mob mentality set things on that narrow stretch of land equally accessible to both children and adults. Anyone who has had to sit through botched attempts at that seemingly simple idea can attest to just how difficult it is to accomplish. Yes, Pixar has appealed to adults as well as their progeny on a regular basis, but as of this point they are the only company to consistently put out that kind of product, and even they have never (to my knowledge) tackled the kinds of themes that Laika is willing to put on the big screen. At times even darker than Coraline, ParaNorman looks at the history of events similar to the Salem Witch Trials both through the horror of the actual event and the opportunistic way in which we use it to sell kitschy mugs and key-chains to tourists. It also looks at bullying in a way not witnessed on the big screen beyond the documentary scene. In other words, you’ve likely never seen a film like ParaNorman in theaters.
Of course, that dark tone creates a few problems in itself. Those more protective parents I mentioned earlier? They likely will have problems with some of the film’s underlying themes, especially a few that don’t generally appeal to more… “conservative”… households. When you’re used to the sanitized films that Hollywood typically turns out, some of the moments in ParaNorman can be genuinely shocking, in the “I can’t believe they did that” manner. This shouldn’t be construed as a reason to avoid the movie, however. For me, it’s genuinely refreshing to see a production that delivers a smart script, realistic characters, and a ton of bellyaching laughs without sacrificing its independence in the process. When one character tries to get Norman to “swear” an oath, Norman’s innocent reply is “You mean like the F word?” It’s funny, but obviously not every parent will be amused.
ParaNormanis obviously a product of the filmmakers’ love of all things horror. Of course there is the adopted zombie theme, but little things manage to sneak their way in, taking full advantage of our collective knowledge of the genre. Kids couldn’t possibly know, but every adult in the audience is aware that when Norman’s phone rings, or his one human friend shows up wearing a hockey mask, we’re witnessing references to Friday the 13th. Norman starts the whole thing off watching a cheesy, low-budget horror film in which the actress stops screaming briefly to look to the camera for direction. And we finally learn why people stop and scream so loud when confronted by slow-moving zombies. It’s quick details like these that make you realize how smart ParaNorman really is, especially when the story takes all your preconceived notions as to what’s happening and flips them around to reveal what you never would have expected.
Finally, it is the job of an animated film’s voice cast to take an already visually-splendid universe and make it more realistic by the virtue of their audio-only performances. This is a detail that most good movies get right automatically, but I have to give proper respect to the amazing people lending their vocal chops to their cartoonish counterparts. Smit-McPhee has already had to hold his own in live-action fare like The Road and Let Me In, and he follows those up by perfectly capturing reluctant hero Norman with apparent ease. From downtrodden and submissive to confident and determined, Smit-McPhee helps make Norman’s journey everything it needs to be and more. As his gang of misfits, the cast of Anna Kendrick, Casey Affleck, Christopher Mintz-Plasse and Tucker Albrizzi are both the perfect collection of unlikely protagonists and an immense source of pure acting talent. Supporting roles by John Goodman, Leslie Mann, Jeff Garlin and Bernard Hill help flesh out the small town – this is among the most honest and fun group of characters I’ve seen in a movie this year.
In short, ParaNorman is arguably the best animated film released in 2012; with only Brave anywhere close in overall quality. I wouldn’t recommend you take toddlers or infants to it, as its atmosphere might be a little too scary for them, though it’s really no worse in that department than say, Nightmare Before Christmas or Who Framed Roger Rabbit? But for older children, adults, and everyone in between, there’s no better film to see with the entire family this year. For that, it’s currently my year’s #4 movie, among the best 2012 has offered. There’s still plenty of time between now and award season, and chances are Brave will still be the big winner when all is said and done. Still, I know I’ll be rooting for this underdog to capture the hearts of its viewers and to pick up some well deserved recognition along the way. This stop-motion masterpiece is filmmaking at its best, and should absolutely be recognized for it.
John C. Anderson is a freelance writer and movie enthusiast living in Boston. To see his latest film reviews, check out Hello, Mr. Anderson.