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Like ParaNorman’s titular character, I’m a huge fan of horror movies. Of any genre, it presents me with the most emotions, like fear, that don’t affect me daily. With notable exceptions, horror trades story for execution. While Hollywood horror makes anything happen onscreen, awful stories can dull the senses. ParaNorman, ostensibly a children’s film, is definitely one of those exceptions, and is (severed) hands down one of my favorite films this year.
Silly of me to think Coraline was the apex of dark children’s animation in our current era of antiseptic kid entertainment. But Laika has outdone themselves, both visually and in their original story of a misunderstood boy being given the ultimate responsibility.
A wonderful unrelated opening, honoring golden age monster movies, sets the film’s off-kilter tone before actually introducing us to Blithe Hollow, Massachusetts. It’s the witch-infatuated hometown of young outsider Norman Babcock (Kodi Smit-McPhee), who lives with his overbearing and disapproving dad, Perry (Jeff Garlin), soothing-but-confused mother, Sandra (Leslie Mann), and the most teenage-y sister ever, Courtney (Anna Kendrick). Norman can see ghosts, but nobody believes him; instead, choosing to taunt him. His only friend ends up being a delightfully odd classmate named Neil (Tucker Albrizzi), whose obesity and other body quirks make him similarly bullied, usually by the potato sack-faced Alvin (Christopher Mintz-Plasse).
Norman’s visions become more erratic and begin affecting his behavior. He’s mentally transported back to the days of the Witch Trials. The town’s loony recluse who also happens to be Norman’s uncle, Mr. Prenderghast (John Goodman), offers old timey ritualistic insight into how Norman can stop these visions, and it happens to involve stopping Aggie (Jodelle Micah Ferland), a large and powerful witch ghost that threatens to take over the town each year. This year, the duty falls to Norman, and what follows are zombies, led by Judge Hopkins (Bernard Hill), and plenty of other adventures on the way to saving the town.
While the basic premise of the “weird boy who must save town” isn’t the most original, the film’s take on the subject matter is fresher than a minute-old corpse. The perfectly realized simplicity of childhood friendship is lovely, while Smit-McPhee and Albrizzi knock almost every line out of the park. Once Casey Affleck comes in as Neil’s older and manlier brother, Mitch, and the entire group of youths has to work together, the film is working on so many levels outside of the initial premise. The humor is refreshingly adult at times, and the sheer lack of condescension is admirable.
If the film has a downside, it’s the generic and predictable manner in which Norman’s parents are distant and demanding, rather than trying to understand their son, especially Perry. I couldn’t stop thinking Jeff Garlin was a tool. This muddled idea is somewhat resolved, but after seeing the same parental behavior in Coraline, I should hope Laika’s next film avoids parent-child relationships altogether.
Regardless, ParaNorman’s visual splendor is the most impressive my eyes have seen this year. The amount of work the animators were able to accomplish by practical methods is astounding. And even when CGI is used, it’s well within the creative boundaries that Butler and Fell have set. The two things that made my eyeballs the happiest were probably the toilet paper monsters and Alvin’s attempt at krump dancing, and my favorite scene of all included the most rigor mortis I’ve ever seen in a children’s film. I honestly couldn’t believe they went there, but that’s what happens with filmmakers unafraid to be original and inventive. It was also a joy to find all the horror movie references sprinkled throughout.
And beyond those homages, the scariest thing about ParaNorman is that it took this long to get the horror-comedy animation right. It’s a fabulous film, any “witch” way you look at it. The film’s jokes are better.
There’s no reason to avoid buying this Blu-ray set, even if you don’t have a Blu-ray player. It comes with the DVD, and you’ll get one eventually. I found it just as gorgeous, if not more so, than anything Pixar has put out. I would have bet serious money against how much of the film was created through stop-motion models. I was fooled and amazed.
Every stop-motion film’s commentary that I’ve listened to has been an absolute treat, and the one with this set with Chris Butler and Sam Fell is as good as any, due to the film’s enormous scale. Conversation subjects are never-ending, from rejected story ideas to a multitude of production details, to the fact that Albrizzi was much more successful at voiceovers when he wasn’t trying to act.
“Peering Through the Veil” delves into the stop-motion process and does so for forty minutes. A lot of the gorgeous sets and set pieces, as well as the New England locations that inspired them, are shown. From there, fans can go in-depth with the character creators and sculptors, and learn all about the figures’ metal skeletons and the 3D color printing involved with creating the character faces, which saves time and allows for a virtually limitless amount of realistic reactions. The CGI and voiceover work is also discussed, as well as the rigging involved with some of the film’s stunts.
Aside from those, there are seven separate featurettes that run for a combined fourteen minutes. Focus is given on some members of the crew being weirdoes when they were young, as well as some of the model makers and animators in action. One explains the look of the zombies. Another sheds light on who believes in ghosts and who doesn’t.
Finally, there are three preliminary animatic sequences, lasting nine minutes total, with optional commentary from Butler and Fell. The amazing scene that reveals Norman’s gift is discussed, and is definitely worth a watch.
I can’t recommend ParaNorman enough. The stark differences between this story and the multitude of kids’ fare out there gives me hope for a future where our ideals for our children can downshift back to how they were in the past, and we can start treating them like small adults again. Even if they happen to talk to their dead grandmother every once in a while.
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