IN CINEMAS NOW
RUNNING TIME: 92 mins
REVIEWED BY: Dr Lenera, Official HCF Critic
Norman is an outsider in his home town of Blithe Hollow and especially at school. He has one great gift; an ability to see and talk to the dead, but nobody believes his ability is real until he makes friends with Neil, a similarly bullied boy but in his case mostly because of his weight. During a rehearsal for a school play commemorating the time when, 300 years ago, the town executed a witch, Norman has a harrowing vision of the town’s past and being pursued as a witch. Afterwards, the boys are confronted by Norman’s estranged and seemingly deranged uncle Mr. Prenderghast, who tells his nephew that the vision is a sign that he soon must take up his regular ritual to protect the town. Norman refuses to take him seriously, but after another vision and his uncle’s sudden death, he realizes he himself has to go into action…….
Quite often it seems that two films of a similar or the same subject matter come out at around the same time. This seemed to reach a peak in the early 90’s where you had two Robin Hood films, two Wyatt Earp films etc. This year it seems that we are going to be treated to not two but three horror-orientated animated films, with not just this particular film but Hotel Transylvania and Frankenweenie near their release dates. You might expect that the Tim Burton movie would be the one to beat, but it would have a hard time bettering ParaNorman, which I have no bones about saying is easily the best animated film of the year so far, a year that has hardly been a vintage year for animation with the latest offerings from Aardman and Pixar in particular disappointing considerably. Have no fear, this is easily the equal of the same studio’s previous stop motion picture Coraline; in fact, its better.
Right from the opening scene, if you’re a horror fan you should get quite a bit of enjoyment from this movie, with our hero watching a zombie film where the heroine trips over brains and, in a great mickey-take of a horror cliche, just stands there screaming while a flesh-eater slowly shuffles towards her. The story borrows from several typical ‘concepts’ that can be found in many horror films but subverts and twists them, while of course there are many more ‘blatant’ references fans will pick up on, from Night Of The Living Dead to Cannibal Apocalypse, but they don’t jump out at you; if you don’t ‘get’ the references, children and those with little knowledge of horror movies won’t feel they have missed out. Much has been made of this film being too scary for young children, something I think is utter nonsense; they often love being scared, and it’s good for them from time to time. I should also point out that, yes, there’s much Sam Raimi-type slapstick involving severed arms and head and the like, but no blood.
Like Coraline, ParaNorman is a bit slow going at first but there is little doubt that directors Chris Butler and Sam Fell have total control of their story in the scene where Norman walks through the town, accompanied by Jon Brion’s infectious music; the camera goes all the way round him and when we next see things from the point of view of Norman, we see all the ghosts around him, a transition handled with great economy but skilfully manage. Yes, this Norman can see dead people and even talk to them, but the story becomes about far more than that, with zombies, a witch’s curse and terrible events dredged up from the past taking centre stage. The zombies are handled especially well, being both a bit scary and bit funny [especially during their resurrection scene], and the witch is actually rather frightening when depicted as a huge face seemingly made out of clouds. The film is vey original in depicting these elements; for a start, let’s just say that much of the villainous activity is not committed by those you may expect. There are plenty of the expected laughs, the odd one very crude, and I wondered if the film really needed them, but I was glad they were there [there’s a wonderfully yucky gag with a falling corpse] and of course they temper the scary stuff for the kiddies.
ParaNorman is very much a parable about bullying, a subject close to many children’s hearts. There is also good stuff for the young here about how it’s OK to be unpopular, and we are also shown how weak people become aggressive when they’re frightened. The message of tolerance is a very worthwhile one, though there has already been much fuss made about a revelation in the final scene about one character being gay; I don’t have a problem with it considering it is in a film which is rated ‘PG’, which stand for ‘Parental Guidance’. If it had been in a ‘U’ film then I probably would be one of those who take issue with it, but it’s not. Throughout the film, it’s great to see some characters who sometimes reverse our expectations. I especially liked Norman’s older sister Courtney, perfectly voiced by Anna Hendrick, who comes across as the archetypal self-obsessed bimbo but doesn’t finish the film that way. I liked even more that, after giving us plenty of action and excitement, the actual climax of the film involves a simple conversation with a ghost in the past. It’s rather touching and even quite beautiful.
With each film, stop motion seems to be getting better and better and even with the obvious assistance from computers I still think it has an expressive quality which you don’t really get in computer animation. I hope that Focus Features carry on making their films in this manner [though their first animated feature 9, which was purely computer animated, was pretty impressive too]. Some of the minor characters looked suspiciously like folk from other animated films [look out for Woody!], I don’t know if this was intentional or not. I would imagine the latter but I don’t know. One could ask similar questions about Jon Brion’s score, which is very good and is mostly slightly different to what you would normally here, but it has a cue near the end which is clearly modelled on a cue from The Fountain; the fact that the scene in question has somewhat similar yellow visuals made the connection rather too obvious for me!
Some may find the messages are hammered out too unsubtly but this is a kid’s movie after all…albeit one that many adults should thoroughly enjoy too with its edge, lack of sugar-coating and sheer invention…and that especially means horror fans! Need I add that I didn’t see this in that rip-off they call 3D [I’m still smarting from being forced to see Dredd in 3D because the 2D showings are so thin on the ground] and that the 2D version gives all the visual and immersion you could want. Now come on Mr Burton, the challenge is on; beat this!