Many people are creeped-out by stop-motion animation, which is probably why it has been so effective in light-hearted spookfests like The Nightmare Before Christmas, Corpse Bride, and Coraline. Add to this list ParaNorman, a dark but lovable film that turns comedy horror into fun for (almost) the whole family.
Norman Babcock (Kodi Smit-McPhee) is a slightly-less-than-normal kid. His hair is broom-straight, he’s obsessed with old zombie movies, and he can see and talk to ghosts, including his recently deceased Grandma (Elaine Stritch). His parents (Leslie Mann, Jeff Garlin) and sister Courtney (Anna Kendrick) think he’s just acting out, while everyone else just thinks he’s a freak, especially merciless school bully Alvin (Christopher Mintz-Plasse).
Well, not everyone. Neil (Tucker Albrizzi) is equally picked on because of his weight, and thinks Norman’s special ability is pretty cool. And Norman’s creepy uncle (John Goodman) thinks the boy is the only one who can keep the town safe from a curse laid by a witch who was burned at the stake 300 years earlier. Norman’s talent of speaking to the dead is needed to convince the old girl not to rise up on the anniversary of her death, bringing the bodies of her judge and accusers with her. Needless to say, nothing goes according to plan, and when the undead begin stalking the town, it’s up to Norman and the other kids, including Neil’s musclehead brother Mitch (Casey Affleck), to put things right again.
All of this sounds much scarier than it is, though parents of young or sensitive kids may want to give this one a pass. Writer/director Chris Butler and co-director Sam Fell manage to keep the tone light, even when the humour is black, and there are positive and unexpectedly emotional messages about dealing with fear and being different. What’s great about this balance is that it’s achieved even though Butler and Fell use classic horror movie techniques throughout. Clearly students of the genre, they recreate the skewed camera angles and atmosphere of 70s-80s horror, right down to the synth music that plays when the zombies are on screen.
The visual design, so important to a stop-motion animated film, captivates the eye. It’s not really a pretty film to look at, but that’s kind of the point. Weird angles and imperfect details are everywhere, underscoring the themes and adding to the low-budget horror vibe. The Babcock family car, with its lopsided construction, is a great example – initially jarring to look at, but ultimately fitting right into the movie’s aesthetic. Note also the detail in the backgrounds, especially the various witch puns on the shops in the town. Stop-motion requires months and years of painstaking work, and all of it shows here.
ParaNorman is a welcome standout from the many predictable and highly-similar summer blockbusters and kids’ films out there, and well worth your time.
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