Mark Reviews Movies

ParaNorman

PARANORMAN

3 ˝ Stars (out of 4)

Directors: Chris Butler and Sam Fell

Cast: The voices of Kodi Smit-McPhee, Tucker Albrizzi, Anna Kendrick, Casey Affleck, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Leslie Mann, Jeff Garlin, Elaine Stritch, John Goodman, Bernard Hill, Jodelle Ferland

MPAA Rating: PG (for scary action and images, thematic elements, some rude humor and language)

Running Time: 1:33

Release Date: 8/17/12


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Review by Mark Dujsik | August 16, 2012

The poor kid has no choice but to continually think about death; he is quite literally surrounded by it. For you see, Norman Babcock (voice of Kodi Smit-McPhee), the haunted hero of ParaNorman, can see ghosts. Perhaps worse, he can have full conversations with them.

They aren't pleasant sights, either. The film's mythology takes its cue from one of the more common superstitions about ghosts, in that those that are left to shuffle aimlessly around this mortal coil died either unexpected or violent deaths. Each one has taken on a sickly green hue as they hover above the ground or are left trapped in their death pose—a woman wearing a parachute is still impaled to a branch of the tree into which she landed. Some of the more grisly specters he encounters are animals, like his friend's dog, which was split in half after being hit by a car. He pets the air above some roadkill as his neighbors look on in disgust. Poor Norman only sees a beast looking for some attention and not the flattened carcass upon which its phantom is standing.

In case the point isn't clear yet, ParaNorman is a morbid film but gleefully so. This is only a film for kids in that its central characters are ones themselves. It's more a product of filmmakers with some knowledge of and no shortage of respect for horror movies, intended for those who share a similar passion for the genre.

In addition to ghosts, the film features zombies, a witch's curse, portending omens of doom, dismemberments played for laughs (Parents need not fear too much; they're only the walking undead), clever references to slasher movies (Our hero's ringtone is the unmistakably tinny piano of the Halloween theme), and assorted other images of the macabre. Screenwriter Chris Butler, who co-directed the film with Sam Fell, keeps the material's tongue firmly planted in its cheek for the large majority of the film, which is more than can be said of at least one of the story's corpses. Again, it's pretty ghoulish.

Norman is an outcast, even in the eyes of his family members. His father (voice of Jeff Garlin) thinks he's too strange for his own good. His sister Courtney (voice of Anna Kendrick) is too busy trying to be popular to take much notice of her little brother, but when she does, it's with embarrassed disdain. His mother (voice of Leslie Mann) is more forgiving of his quirks and insists his father is scared for him, not of him.

Only Norman's grandmother (voice of Elaine Stritch) really understands and sympathizes with him, but that's because she's dead. Planted on the couch in the living room, she doesn't pay much attention to the television when Norman's in front of it. He's always watching some horror movie (The film opens with a heavily scratched sequence from a made-up 1960s horror show, complete with a ludicrously slow moving victim). Grandma explains the nature of ghosts to Norman; she says she's staying behind because there's no cable in Paradise—also that she promised to protect her grandson.

At school, Norman is constantly mocked and bullied—called a "freak" behind his back and directly to his face. The head bully is Alvin (voice of Christopher Mintz-Plasse), a boy who terrorizes to compensate for the fact that he can't even spell his own name (a shortcoming that makes graffiti difficult). A fellow classmate Neil (voice of Tucker Albrizzi) is teased and tormented for his weight; he insists he and Norman become friends. Norman has become so used to being alone that he prefers it that way. Neil, though, doesn't lack persistence.

The characters are broad but appealing, each defined almost entirely by his or her physical stature and wardrobe. Neil's brother Mitch (voice of Casey Affleck) is an impossibly chiseled Adonis-like figure who makes even the narcissistic Courtney think of someone besides herself for a change. Neil is so happy-go-lucky that he also lacks self-awareness; his one-liners are little gems of loveable dopiness (Another homage to Halloween has Neil looking a lot like another famous movie killer, though the kid's intentions have to do with what the mask is actually for). Norman mopes about with his impossible-to-tame, spiky hair but is still wholly sympathetic. Even Alvin, the worst of them, starts to grow on us as he becomes entangled in supernatural events for which only Norman might be prepared.

The plot involves a centuries-old curse on the town of Blithe Hollow, which has taken advantage of its sad history of Puritans persecuting women they deemed witches by making everything witch-themed. Norman's uncle (voice of John Goodman) enlists the boy to stop the impending rise of the dead by performing a ritual on the anniversary of one particular witch's death by hanging. Things go wrong, and soon the cast of misfits is on the run from Puritan zombies while trying to discover how to stop them.

The fast-paced chase and some third-act exposition cannot keep up with the comic inventiveness that precedes them (There are some amusing bits: The zombies are horrified by modern culture, and it turns out the undead are no match for a town full of citizens armed with various makeshift weapons), but Butler, Fell, the collection of stop-motion animators, and other artists have created a world and characters brimming with details. From the yarn-like hair to other more impressive setpieces (e.g., the way Norman sees the "veil" of the real world burn away or a haunting inside the school's bathroom as the tiles crawl and the walls of the stall balloon), this is an inspired visual pleasure.

Everything comes together in the climax of ParaNorman, from the otherworldly dimension beneath the surface of it all to Norman's innermost fears, made manifest in the form of an antagonist who shares a lot in common with our poor hero (There's some questionable moral equivalency between the despicable actions of the zombies in their past lives and the character Norman ultimately must face, but it's not a broad lesson—just a moment in which one lost soul must empathize and try to reason with another). They both just want to be normal or, at least, to find someone who thinks they are anyway. It's a poignant cap to a peculiar—in the best sense of the word—film.

Copyright © 2012 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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