Paranorman is an exceptional, gorgeous stop motion marvel. It’s pure, innocent, magical beauty easily whisks away its audience to a vision of splendor. It’s a fantastic film on most every level, from the characters, to the color, the story, the themes and even the 3D. It is a film that will easily find its way into the hearts of many a young fan and will certainly become a staple of the Halloween season for years to come. Directors Chris Butler and Sam Fell, along with the animators at Laika (also behind Coraline 2009), have poured their hearts and imagination into the film with every passion and purpose making onto the screen. Paranorman should not be missed.
Paranorman is the story of a young loner named Norman Babcock (Kodi Smith-McPhee). Much like Cole Sear from The Sixth Sense, Norman has the unique ability to see the dead as ghosts walking around streets, hanging out in graveyards or sitting in his living room watching TV. The other kids in Blithe Hallow, Massachusetts, constantly ridicule and tease Norman, all except the awkward, overweight schoolmate, Neil Down (Tucker Albrizzi). Reluctantly, Norman shares his world with Neil as they continue facing the badgering of Alvin, the school bully (Christopher Mintz-Plasse). When Norman learns of the curse that threatens the town from his recently deceased uncle, Mr. Prenderghast (John Goodman), he finds not only Neil by his side but, surprisingly, Alvin as well when the bully follows him into the graveyard to witness the zombies rising from their graves. Neil’s brother, Mitch (Casey Affleck), and Norman’s sister, Courtney (Anna Kendrick), are along for the ride as the ragtag team races to save Blithe Hallow from the witch’s curse.
Behind this deceptively simple story is a tapestry rich in themes, messages and character. The most significant of which is the motif that it is alright to be afraid, just don’t let your fear change you. Norman’s unique talent allows him to have a secure hold on his own fears providing him with a maturity that, when combines with his innocence, gives the film its heart and its warmth. It exposes the motives and decisions of most everyone around him, from Alvin to his parents to the towns folk who rise to challenge the zombies as they slump through town. It’s how Norman faces his own fears the affect the story, the conflict and everyone around him. The script also manages to illustrate themes of forgiveness, acceptance and tolerance. The fact that these themes are both worn on the film’s sleeve but still don’t feel oppressive or preachy is a minor miracle. Everything emanates from Norman and his story allowing its core to evolve naturally, wonderfully.
Norman is a well conceived character, a cross between Cole Sear and Elliot from E.T., and would have worked equally well as a live action role. As a stop motion model, the character is near perfect with his stubbornly straight hair, large ears and slightly askew nose. Kodi Smith-McPhee provides the role with instantly sympathetic emotion and life. He’s a complex character: brave, funny, awkward, scared, confident, innocent, mature. As executed, Neil is a great companion for Norman. They share in their socially challenged lives with Neil’s friendly curiosity winning over Norman’s reluctance to befriend anyone, to share his ability to see the dead. Alvin is a stereotypical bully, large, lumber-some and not so smart. The character’s winning turn is when he looks to Norman when the dead rise and that he finds the courage to stand with Norman when the time comes. The rest of the character repeat this pattern, very stereotypical roles and characters turned on their ear just enough to serve the story. If there is something to nitpick on Paranorman, it may be that the characters are a little too rote or common; they are little more than stereotypes, especially when compared to Norman or Mr. Prenderghast. But, this may also be in the film’s favor as they become instantly recognizable to the younger audiences the film targets. The fact that most are allow to grow throughout the story allows this potential misstep to go unnoticed.
The stop motion work in Paranorman is remarkable, allowing the cinematography, color and 3D to accentuation and illuminate the animation. The sets are vast and imaginative. The characters are unique to themselves but share the signature flavor that is Paranorman. The amount of detail is noteworthy and impressive; Norman’s over-sized ears allow for light to subtly shine through, the effects of the witch’s storm cloud are menacing and her crackling lightning emanations electrify the screen. The colors are beautiful and varied while sticking to the Halloween influenced theme, with vibrant bright greens, gruesome reds and cold grays. The film is full of characters, tons of characters, populating the streets of Blithe Hallow. Each is unique and animated with distinct personality, from police officers, to school teachers, to truck drivers. Even the action scenes, especially a thrilling car chase, is handled in a way that is more natural and cinematic without sacrificing the look and feel that makes stop motion so magical.
Paranorman is also steeped in its own 3D world. The addition of 3D is incredibly immersive in Paranorman and an important factor in its construction, execution and presentation. It allows the world of Paranorman to be more than just a fantastically realized puppet world, it now engages its audience, drawing them into the streets of Blithe Hollow or the creepy forest just outside the town graveyard. The use of 3D is at its best during the climatic confrontation between Norman and Aggie, the witch that has cursed the town. During these scenes, the already impressive world of Paranorman gives away to a more abstract and even more impressive world of Aggie’s imagination and fears. It is astounding in a way only 3D can provide. Other moments during Paranorman, while not as striking as the finale, are equally amazing. Norman’s room has the depth that only a young horror film fan could provide; the stumbling living dead inch forward with the arms outstretched; the townsfolk chase the hapless living dead with their modern versions of pitchforks and torches; the approaching witch-influenced storm cloud. Each element is given a little more life, a little more depth and pops with imagination.
Paranorman is a triumph for both kids and adults alike, for fans of horror films or for cinema period. The film is surprisingly mature and isn’t afraid to serve up its story scary when it gets dark. Still cartoon enough to prevent nightmares, Paranorman will still create chills and thrills; for an animated film, it still gets frightening when it needs too. The film is full of heart and contains important themes. The characters are memorable and imaginative. The action is exciting, the threat is menacing and the comedy is funny. For those who hold Coraline close to their chest, Paranorman is a perfect companion. It also goes equally well with the likes of Corpse Bride, The Nightmare Before Christmas and the classic Mad Monster Party. Halloween, ghosts, the living dead and witches have never been as charming and astounding as they are in the near perfect animated feature Paranorman, a must see Halloween film for all ages.