ParaNorman

ParaNormanSynopsis: From the makers of Coraline comes the story of Norman, a boy who must use his ability to see and speak with the dead to save his town from a centuries-old curse.

In addition to spooky zombies, he’ll also have to take on mysterious ghosts, wily witches and, worst, of all, clueless grown-ups. But this young ghoul whisperer will soon find his paranormal abilities pushed to their otherworldly limits. Featuring the voice talents of Kodi Smit-McPhee, Anna Kendrick, Casey Affleck, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Leslie Mann, Jeff Garlin and John Goodman, it’s a frightfully funny and magically thrilling adventure for the whole family in eye-popping stop-motion.

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ParaNorman 8.0

eyelights: the quirky story. the gorgeous visuals. the attention to detail.
eyesores: some of the more familiar humour.

Grandma: “What’s happening now?”
Norman: “Well, the zombie is eating her head, Grandma.”
Grandma: “That’s not very nice. What’s he doing that for?”
Norman: “Because he’s a zombie. That’s what they do.”
Grandma: “He’s gonna ruin his dinner.”

I thought very little of ParaNorman when I first heard of it. I found the title only half-clever, which annoyed me and made me look down my nose at it. I eventually stumbled upon it at the library and made myself a copy anyway. Because that’s just what I do: I get everything I can that looks remotely interesting and that I think has the slightest chance of being watched (there’s lots of great stuff I know I’ll never get to).

Anyway, I was trying to find films that fit my October slate, going through lists and shuffling titles about, when I eventually came to ‘ParaNorman’. I figured that it might make for a a decent counterpoint to ‘Mad Monster Party?‘ when I realized that it was also stop-motion (yes, there is a method to my madness!). When I read that it was made by the same people behind ‘Coraline‘, I was sold. Maybe even a little bit excited.

Unfortunately, for reasons that escape me, my copy didn’t work – no matter where I tried it. I looked around in the usual places for a second-hand copy, rejecting the notion of buying it just to watch it, but resigned to the idea because it was too late in the game to change my plan. I couldn’t find it anywhere so, desperate, I tracked down and bought a brand new blu-ray, by this point thinking that it may be worth the gamble.

I’m so glad I took a chance.

‘ParaNorman’ is actually a semi-clever, amusing, frequently droll, stop-motion extravaganza. In fact, it’s probably one of the best North American animated films I’ve seen in a long while – at least, that I had never seen before. Forget ‘9‘ and ‘Frankenweenie‘, for instance. Admittedly, I haven’t seen tons of them, but I haven’t had this much fun since ‘Fantastic Mr. Fox’ (I also haven’t been as impressed with a film’s animation since). ‘ParaNorman’ is total eye candy.

What makes the film enjoyable for me are all the little touches, all the details that were infused in this picture. It is a stop-motion film, after all, so the filmmakers had complete sets to work with. From the onset I found myself spending much of the movie scanning the screen for all the small details that were thrown into this – it must have been a real sight at the big screen; I regret missing it now, especially since it was conceived in 3D.

But what is ‘ParaNorman’ about?

‘ParaNorman’ is the story of Norman, a young boy whom we soon discover can see and speak to the dearly departed. This makes him a social misfit, of course, because he can’t convince anyone that what he’s seeing and saying about the undead is true. His whole family has a difficult time with his obsession with horror, and he’s bullied at school for being a “freak”. Soon, when seven undead rise up and terrorize the city, they will discover that he was right all along.

The crux of the picture is in the human interactions. Many of them are perhaps all-too-familiar, but there are so many different dynamics (between Norman and his sister, his parents, his uncle, his grandmother, the school bully, his new friend Neil, all the undead, between Neil and his brother, …etc.) that there was always something fresh to latch onto. For a quirky animated picture written by only one person, there’s actually a lot of substance to it.

In fact, there was a lot of creativity thrown into this, considering that this wasn’t put together by a massive writing team. Christ Butler, the writer, is also one of the co-directors. He must have put everything he could into what amounts to his first picture (he’s done storyboards for a couple of other animated films, but that’s about it); you don’t get opportunities like this every other day. Well, as far as I’m concerned, he made the most of it.

It’s clear that the filmmakers had fun making ‘ParaNorman’, because it’s filled to the brim with all sorts of amusing references and gags. For example:

  • During the mob scene, a kid tosses a torch into the Town Hall to scare the undesirables out, and as it lands we realize that it’s actually a teddy bear with its head on fire. Awesome!
  • When the parents drive Norman, his sister and a zombie around to find the witch’s grave, the zombie is awkwardly squeezed between the two kids. The body language, the look on its face, and the discomfort between it and the sister all translated in some serious chuckles.
  • At a crucial moment, Neil shows up looking like Jason Voorhees… asking Norman is he wants to go play hockey.
  • Norman’s ringtone is the theme to ‘Halloween’. Brilliant!
  • The closing credits were artsy, with each of the main credits given a major splash page that was reminiscent of ’50s sci-fi/horror art. Even the rest of credits were filled with superb background art, which had me sticking around to savour all of it. At the tail end, they even showed a quick the assemblage of Norman in time-lapse photography. Nice touch.

The fun started right from the first scene, which showed us a hilarious zombie b-movie being played on a small screen, in the center of the picture. It spoofed old school horror films quite nicely, set the mood with its blend of horror and humour and made for an excellent intro to our characters. From that point we immediately realize that Norman isn’t your average kid, and that his familial relationships reflect this.

Soon after we discover that Norman is actually talking to ghosts, we see him going to school, interacting with the many ghosts wandering about the town. Except that, after setting it up, we are given an outsider’s perspective: no longer do we see the ghosts and are then seeing what the rest of the world sees – a weird kid talking to himself and acting out, petting invisible dogs, …etc. That was brilliant because it was really funny to see, but it helped us understand why people react to him the way that they do.

The filmmakers took their time setting up the characters and all their relationships before taking us into the story, which was nice; ‘ParaNorman’ didn’t feel rushed. By the time that Norman meets his uncle for the first time, he’s already been to school, been bullied and made a new oddball friend. And even then, it would take until later into the picture before his uncle would explain to Norman the purpose of his ability and how to save the town.

The animation was so good, so quick and kinetic, that I really wasn’t sure that it was made in stop-motion. It was clear that some CGI was involved, so I was never sure if it was all CGI or merely a mix. As with ‘Frankenweenie’, I thought that this might be a CGI film made to look like stop-motion. Apparently not. Fact is, this was made with a 3D printer – which may explain for the innumerable (and almost fluid. almost.) facial expressions.

The character designs were all pretty good, too. I like that Norman looks semi-normal; he’s not gothy or weird looking (like Tim Burton or Neil Gaiman would have made him). His sister was interesting because she’s a ditzy so-cal type, but they didn’t make her skinny; she had big hips. Similarly, Neil, Norman’s new friend, is a chubby boy. And the ghouls were all pretty cool-looking. Basically, all the characters were well-thought out.

Seriously, the filmmakers had a pretty crafty crew working on this one: even if the writing were good, the art department might have sucked, or the animators might have been subpar, or the score might have been generic (it wasn’t: it changed style as the film progressed, adapting to where the story was). But I can’t find any real fault anywhere. If anything, the writing is the main weak point – and it was actually pretty decent, with some excellent ideas thrown in.

So why am I not rating ‘ParaNorman’ more highly? I don’t know. I really don’t. I had fun, was totally impressed with certain elements of it, and yet something is preventing me from rating it higher. I’m not sure what, though. Honestly, it’s a high-quality production on all levels, and I suspect that it’ll grow on me even more over time. So there’s no reason why I’m only giving it an 8.0.

I can say thing for sure, though: this blu-ray will no doubt get some mileage. It was well-worth the price.

I would recommend ‘ParaNorman’ to anyone who likes quirky pictures and isn’t put off by the macabre. It’s hardly scary nor gruesome, but it revolves entirely around the undead and spooky themes. Fans of Tim Burton’s work would likely enjoy this – except that, unlike much of Burton’s work, this picture actually has a pretty decent story, and for every cliché it serves up a few moments of freshness in compensation.

Basically, ‘ParaNorman’ is wicked fun.

Story: 8.0
Acting: 8.0
Production: 8.0

Chills: 4.0
Gore: 4.0
Violence: 4.0

Date of viewing: October 19, 2013

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