Saturday, August 18, 2012

He Sees Dead People: PARANORMAN

The creative people at Laika, the stop-motion animation company that first brought us Henry “Nightmare Before Christmas” Selick’s adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s Coraline, are back with a first-rate family-friendly horror movie called ParaNorman. It’s the story of Norman (Kodi Smit-McPhee), an 11-year-old boy who can see ghosts and though it’s scary, it’s not too scary. The film may have more in common stylistically with Poltergeist and Halloween than Scooby Doo, but its heart is all R.L. Stein’s Goosebumps books and Gil Kenan’s underappreciated Monster House, yet another horror movie for kids. ParaNorman is the safe, fun kind of creepy scary that wraps up the danger and suspense in heaping helpings of humor, slapstick, and life lessons.  I’ll bet brave and precocious kids will happily, if maybe a bit uneasily, gobble it up, mostly because I know I would’ve done so when I was 11-years-old, as I did now.

Written and co-directed by debut filmmaker Chris Butler (his co-director is animation veteran Sam Fell, who previously helmed Aardman’s Flushed Away and Universal’s Tale of Despereaux) the film opens with Norman having a good chat with his grandmother (Elaine Stritch) who just happens to be dead. In fact, most of his social interaction happens with these floating ghosts who inhabit this small, sleepy Massachusetts town. Of course, no one believes him. The poor kid is surrounded by people who just don’t understand: his parents (Leslie Mann and Jeff Garlin), his older cheerleader sister (Anna Kendrick), and the school bully (Christopher Mintz-Plasse). He’s a loner who only has a semi-clueless chubby kid (Tucker Albrizzi) to talk to, even though they’ve only just met.

The town’s getting ready to celebrate the 300th anniversary of the town’s claim to fame: the Puritans’ hanging of a girl they declared a witch who, before she died, is said to have cursed the judge and jury to walk the earth as zombies. But, that hasn’t happened in all this time, so the town has grabbed onto the historical anecdote and made it their main reason for existence. On the eve of this anniversary, as the school kids prepare to put on a reenactment – complete with their children’s choir rendition of Donovan’s “Season of the Witch” – the town’s resident crazy guy (John Goodman) runs up to Norman and urges him to use his powers of communicating with the dead to stop the witch’s ghost (Jodelle Ferland) from returning to exact revenge by activating her curse.

Wouldn’t you know it? That’s exactly what happens and now it’s up to Norman to avoid the zombies shuffling through town, find a way to break the witch’s curse and stop it all from tearing the town apart. It might be too late. The zombies – shambling corpses with green skin hanging loosely off of fragile bones – are already causing quite a bit of chaos. Unfortunately, when the night grew dark and stormy and the curse came whirling into action, Norman was stuck with his sister, the bully, the chubby kid, and that kid’s older brother (Casey Affleck). They aren’t exactly much help. At one point Norman grumbles that if he’d known what breaking the curse entailed, he’d have “gotten stuck with a different group of people who hate me.”

What keeps the potential intensity of it all manageable is the way Butler, Fell and their crew of technicians keep the nice handcrafted feeling – the textures of the sets and figures are so intricate, vivid and tactile – animating the macabre dollhouse aesthetic while heading off into two pleasantly surprising parallel avenues of attack. Firstly, the film is proudly funny, with all manner of coy references, chipper dialogue, and sight gags jumping right along, puncturing scenes before they get overwhelmingly scary and sliding instead into pleasantly creepy, gorgeously animated, territory. The zombies themselves, initially only great jump-scares and slow-moving threats, are used for both their menace and their inherent goofy physical properties, losing limbs that continue to crawl around and staring agape at the strange modern world around them. They’re as confused as they are dangerous. After all, they’re from 1712.

Secondly, the film finds some unexpected depth in its story of a kid bullied because he’s different, eventually drawing some nice parallels with the town’s violent history. I’d never have guessed that ParaNorman would become, even casually and in an unemphatic, and all the more powerful for it, way, a film about how a town’s history informs its present, about how bullying is a sad fact of human nature, about how retrograde fears and mob mentalities never really go away, they just return in newer, modern iterations. By the end, the striking visuals and creepy fun plot add up to some good lessons and sweet, moving emotional resolution.

From the movie’s opening scratchy, faux-retro studio logos that fade into a cheesy zombie movie that is revealed to be what Norman and his ghost grandma are watching on TV, I knew I was in for something special. This is a movie made with great care and attention to detail, bursting in every frame with imagination and creativity. It’s clear that the filmmakers love this genre and love their characters. And that’s contagious. This is a terrific entertainment that hurtles forward with atmosphere and energy, a fun ride to a satisfying destination.

1 comment:

  1. We haven't seen the film yet, we're going to try and see it this weekend and get our review of it up, but your review literally put a smile on my face and makes me even more jazzed to see it than I originally was. Well done, sir. Well done.