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Non-Review Review: ParaNorman

This movie was seen as part of Movie Fest, which was as much of a joy this year as it was last year. If not moreso.

ParaNorman is a charming little film, even if it’s not quite as good as Laika’s other recent stop-motion effort, Coraline. ParaNorman is a charming homage to a variety of classic horror films, clearly crafted with a great deal of affection and love by directors Chris Butler and Sam Fell. It suffers a bit from being a little bit too earnest in attempting to convey its heartfelt moral message, but it is still entertainingly well put-together, drawing solid voice work from a diverse cast and making the most of its horror movie premise.

Nothing out of the Norman here…

While it’s still a supernatural family film, you can sense Chris Butler attempting to distance himself from Coraline a bit. While the tone and aesthetic are still quite macabre, Butler and Fell seem to push the film aware from the gothic stylings of Henry Selick’s earlier movie. While Coraline and The Nightmare Before Christmas both had a distinctly classically grotesque design, ParaNorman draws more firmly from the pulpy horrors of the later twentieth century – a move that feels appropriate since these kinds of zombies have only really been around since Night of the Living Dead.

In particular, I like the character design. The world appears as it must be seen by a ten-year-old child, with the most distinctive features of the adult characters seeming to be their bellies or their butts. It’s a wonderful effect that you just couldn’t replicate in live-action, and I think it demonstrates that stop-motion has a wonderful capacity to present a world that looks somewhat more “real”than animation, while still remaining distinctly stylistic.

Ear-to-the-ground…

While it does give the movie a somewhat distinctive look, and helps to avoid the feeling of “been here and done that”, the stop-motion work doesn’t feel quite as snug a fit with that later brand of horror goodness. There are some inspired touches – the opening titles down in a retro-grindhouse style, for example – but the best stop-motion work comes towards the climax when the movie embraces the more classic horror attributes, with a trip back to Puritan times, featuring an older sort of horror villain archetype.

Still, the movie looks absolutely lovely throughout. It’s amazing how expressive these figures – to the point where I’d argue that they’ve come a long way from The Nightmare Before Christmas. In particular, the characters’ eyes are wonderfully expressive, and capable of conveying a full range or emotions. By an measure, the design on ParaNormanis absolutely lovely, and it is – like so many stop-motion films – a technical marvel that’s always a joy to watch.

Better off zed?

Chris Butler’s script runs both hot and cold. At its best moments, it’s an absolute joy to watch. There’s an obvious affection for classic cheap and trashy horror. I do wonder what children will make of all the references, although they are probably more familiar with the films than I am. Norman’s ring tone is Tubular Bells. His friend Neil shows up at the house wearing a familiar white mask as the scare-chord strikes. “Wanna go play hockey?” he asks, sheepishly. The opening features a rather wonderful parody of cheaply-produced trashy zombie films.

Even outside of the affectionate parody, ParaNorman has a delightfully engaging sense of humour, with an endearing assortment of archetypes forced to band together to save the time, and some wonderful gags – some of which are wonderfully dark. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that ParaNormanis at its best when it is dealing with its themes is a relatively light-hearted manner, with a grin or a smirk rather than po-faced seriousness.

“… If it weren’t for those meddling kids…”

After all, the movie underscores its central idea quite well through a variety of witty moments, subverting audience expectations and making viewers somewhat complicit in the stereotyping of certain characters. The movie explores the notion of difference, and how society deals with those it deems to be different, and that theme is actually pretty effectively handled with sequences that seem light-hearted, as we watch a rather unconventional zombie invasion, or discover something unexpected about the personal lives of one of our heroes.

The movie hits a bit of a road-block when it comes to dealing with the theme directly, though. Granted, the idea of a community turning on a child for being different is a very dark piece of subject matter and – to be entirely fair – I praise Butler for being willing to actually explore that. However, things grind to a halt whenever Norman has to pause to outline a moral that has already been effectively underscored by all that we’ve seen so far. The problem isn’t even expressly stating the moral of the movie, it’s the fact that Butler’s script just hammers away at it repeatedly.

A pasty white kid…

I know this is a family film, and that sometimes it’s best to explicitly say things for children – but I think that children are generally smart enough to grasp these sorts of ideas without dwelling on them for an extended period of time, as if Norman is hosting Civics 101. It’s the only point where ParaNorman feels like a children’s film, rather than an experience for the whole family, and it just seems like Butler is handling his themes and ideas just a little bit too bluntly, a little bit too obviously.

It’s a shame, because there are some nice touches that connect with the underlying theme. “There’s nothing wrong with being afraid,” Norman’s grandmother tells him, “as long as you don’t let it change who you are.” Norman is tasked with reading a book to ward off the evil spirits that threaten to consume the town, only to be confused when it turns out to be… a collection of fairy tales. It’s a nice, subtle touch that suggests that we tell these sorts of stories – spook, scary ones – in order to make our own real-world fears seem less substantial than they might otherwise. It’s a validation of fantasy as a mean of exploring horror and fear, and a clever way of validating a horror movie essentially aimed at families. It’s one of the nicer touches of Butler’s script.

The good book?

Technically, though, the film is nothing short of lovely. Jon Brion’s school is quite impressive, constructed as an homage to John Carpenter’s synth-heavy horror soundtracks of yore, but it also seems like a shout-out to Goblin’s work on Dawn of the Dead. It sounds quite wonderful, and contributes almost as much to the atmosphere of the film as Heidi Smith’s character designs or Nelson Lowry’s production design.

ParaNorman is occasionally a bit too heavy-handed for its own good, but it’s still a fun little film constructed with a lot of love and affection for classic horror. It might not be quite as impressive as some of the stop-motion films we’ve seen in recent years, but it’s still a more-than-solid piece of family entertainment.

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