ParaNorman proves impressive, excellent film

NORMAN (VOICED BY KODI SMIT-MCPHEE) GROWLS at himself in the mirror like a rabid zombie as he brushes his teeth, unaware of the undead menace about to befall his town.

I love animated movies. Let me just get that out of the way. I’m not one to be super pretentious and say animated movies are for kids, or they’re childish or whatever. In my opinion, if a film is good, and if it holds up on its own merits, it doesn’t matter if it’s live action, animated, silent, or black and white. A lot of times, you’ll meet people our age and older who will complain that they don’t want to watch something just because it is animated. You can wax poetic about how brilliant the story was, how wonderful the characters were, how great the cinematography was, but they’ll still turn up their noses at it. The goal of this review in particular is to try to get people to step out of their comfort zones and give a great animated movie like ParaNorman a chance.

Produced by Laika, Inc. (the stop motion animation house behind the decidedly creepy Coraline), ParaNorman tells the tale of Norman Babcock, a boy who can speak to the dead. This includes his grandmother and many former denizens of his hometown of Blithe Hollow. His family and peers don’t believe he is telling the truth about what he can see, and so Norman is ostracized and ridiculed wherever he goes. The conflict arrives when Norman’s estranged uncle, who also claims to have the sight, passes on the duties as guardian of the town to his skeptical nephew. Soon, Norman finds himself facing the undead as he tries to defend his town from a scorned witch who lived there long ago.

What the directors and writers at Laika have done here is make a movie that is part horror, part comedy, and all heart. As lame and cliché as that sounds, it’s true! ParaNorman has some really fun zombie stuff, mixed in with some really amusing character work, all wrapped up with a bunch of themes and messages they don’t beat you over the head with. The direction here was great; directors Sam Fell and Chris Butler (who did double duty as the screenwriter), steered clear of the weird and creepy work Henry Selick did in the last Laika film, Coraline. Coraline is a movie that I just didn’t enjoy. Despite the fact that Selick was the mastermind behind The Nightmare Before Christmas, Coraline struck me as a little too macabre and nihilistic. Fortunately, Fell and Butler infuse ParaNorman with plenty of lighter moments, most of them driven by my favorite character, Neil Downe. Neil wants to be friends with Norman since they’re both outsiders (Neal gets picked on for his weight), but Norman is a loner and tries to shy away from any kind of friendship. Neil is brilliant in that, even though he is picked on at school too, he is confident and outgoing throughout the movie. I fell in love with him almost instantly, and even Norman warmed up to him by the end.

Part of Neil’s brilliance has to be credited to the excellent voice work done by Tucker Albrizzi. Albrizzi brings exuberance to Neil that serves as a contrast to the equally good but much more reserved voice Kodi Smit-McPhee brings to Norman. Across the board, really, the voice acting is great. John Goodman was particularly amusing as Norman’s crazy-hobo uncle, Mr. Prenderghast. I love it when Goodman does voice work, maybe because I imagine Walter from The Big Lebowski is doing the voices instead of the actual actor. In any case, Prenderghast is a great character, and when Neil attempts to defend Norman and threatens the hobo with spicy hummus, I was literally in tears, I was laughing so hard. Meanwhile Christopher Mintz-Plasse (McLovin for anyone who doesn’t know who he actually is), does some really notable work as the bully who torments Norman and pretty much every other slightly abnormal kid at their school. Mintz-Plasse had some really funny moments playing the wannabe tough guy who freaks out at the first sign of zombies. Casey Affleck also does a great job as Neil’s jocky airhead brother, his deadpan delivery providing a fair amount of chuckles.

So you know the direction is solid and the voice acting is great, but what about the writing? Dialogue in ParaNorman is clever, and the laughs are definitely earned. I wouldn’t say the movie has any real scares, per se, but there are definitely moments where things get very intense and serious. The fact that they can transition between those two extremes without any real stumbles is a serious compliment to the writers; ParaNorman never feels uneven or stilted. Its story is very well told despite the genres being played with and the themes being explored. Speaking of the themes, I really enjoyed them. There was stuff about family, about bullying, about fear, and about courage. All of these were well-woven into the narrative, and Norman’s personal arc at the heart of the movie is compelling.

In terms of the animation… ParaNorman is gorgeous, absolutely stunning. Sure, Pixar finally nailed hair in this summer’s Brave, but ParaNorman’s stop-motion is just a joy to look at. I’ve always had a particular awe for stop-motion animation, mainly due to the painstaking effort that goes into making it. Certain scenes in ParaNorman took two full years to film, just to give you all an idea. The animators perfectly conveyed a small New England town, as you can see while watching Norman walk around Blithe Hollow. The character models themselves are also very detailed; ParaNorman is the first stop-motion film to utilize 3D color printers to create the character faces, and the technology allows for excellent facial expressions. On an artistic level, even, ParaNorman soars.

ParaNorman is a great film. It is also a film that probably won’t get much recognition. I’m fine with that; I like my cult hits. However, if the reason it doesn’t get recognition is simply because it’s animated, then that is just horrible reasoning. I have a close friend who ranks animated films against some of the best live action films of all time. For a while, I scoffed at her; even though I really enjoy animated films, I didn’t think they compared to the sheer skill of a well-executed director-writer-actor team. Over the past few years, though, I’ve slowly begun to rethink my stance on animated films. Artistically, they can be just as uncompromising as the best live action films. Visually, they can sometimes be even more stunning than some of the most beautiful live action scenes. Narrative-wise, they can be just as peerless as any story conveyed by flesh-and-blood actors. This is because animation is not a genre of film. It is a medium. It is a method by which artists can convey their ideas in a way that is different and arguably more creative than the conventional ways of filmmaking. Animation allows filmmakers a freedom that doesn’t exist on a physical set, and that’s why I love animated films.