In a summer where a few tentpole films have underperformed at the box office, there’s a small gem that may be a bright light in the dog days of August. Directors Sam Fell and Chris Butler tell the story of a young misfit who sees dead people and becomes entangled in a witch’s curse that could conjure a zombie uprising in his small New England Township. It’s a classic tale of tween angst set against a backdrop of ghoulish sight gags.
From Focus Features and LAIKA, the companies that also created the Academy Award-nominated animated feature Coraline, comes the comedy thriller ParaNorman. The second stop-motion animated feature to be made at LAIKA in 3D takes place in Blithe Hollow whose locals profit from mining the town’s 300-year old history as the site of a famous witch hunt. Norman Babcock (voiced by Kodi Smit-McPhee of “Let Me In” and “The Road”) spends much of his days enjoying scary movies and studying ghost lore. What sets him apart from the town’s inhabitants is his ability to see and speak with the dead, such as his beloved grandmother. Middle school is tough enough for kids, but when you are known as “Ab-Norman” for frequent trances and relaying dispatches from beyond the grave, the simple things most children enjoy in school makes the experience all that more difficult.
Norman’s parents are understandably concerned about his development (he still has conversations with Grandma, even though she’s dead) and worry he’s going to end up like the town’s scraggly hermit, who happens to be Norman’s uncle. As it turns out, his uncle shares the same gift/affliction as Norman. Not just that, he also keeps the annual witch’s curse at bay via his necromantic ways. When the old man unexpectedly drops dead, the baton is passed to our young hero and it’s up to Norman to save the town from the impending supernatural curse that could turn Blithe Hollow upside down.
Keeping in mind that ParaNorman is a film about a misunderstood tween, the filmmakers keep the focus of the story on track, even through tight action scenes, and seldom veers off into tangents that would take the audience into another direction. Norman’s dilemma of participating with the living and the dead at the same time is handled affectionately. Although some of the motives of the zombies aren’t initially clear during the second act, the lessons stay constant throughout.
What sets this film apart from other animated films released earlier this year is the gorgeous stop-motion animation. From the very first frame you get a sense the filmmakers created the world of ParaNorman with extra care. The hand-crafted faces are a site to behold. One may notice small touches that give the film a little realism, like light that’s visible through Norman’s ears. To underscore the delicate designs, the beautiful backgrounds and sweeping dioramas are a feast for the eyes. The production design stays away from symmetrical visuals on purpose, and creates a cohesive world that’s very appealing.
Fans of the horror genre may notice a familiar vibe to Jon Brion’s brooding soundtrack. The tone has similarities to John Carpenter’s Halloween, which cleverly heightens some of the more intense scenes with great effect.
In spite of the ghoulish subject matter, ParaNorman delivers. The theme of finding forgiveness and letting go adds a layer of storytelling that will resonate with both adults and children. The film may not become a box office smash like The Avengers, but its quirkiness gives it the potential to become a cult favorite after its theatrical run, especially with teens and the college set. It’s important to note that although vital to the story, there are scenes that are legitimately scary and may be intense for small children.
ParaNorman is rated PG for some mild action. Voice talents include Kodi Smit-McPhee (Norman), Tucker Albrizzi (Neil), Anna Kendrick (Courtney), Casey Affleck (Mitch), Christopher Mintz-Plasse (Alvin), Leslie Mann (Sandra), Jeff Garlin (Perry), Elaine Stritch (Grandma), Bernard Hill (The Judge), Jodelle Ferland (Aggie), Tempestt Bledsoe (Sheriff Hooper), Alex Borstein (Mrs. Henscher) and John Goodman (Mr. Prenderghast).
Running time is 96 minutes. ParaNorman opens in theaters everywhere August 17, 2012.
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