Sunday, 26 August 2012

ParaNorman (A Review)

An homage to the horror genre, and more!
I'm not sure why, but two things I enjoy seem to be currently in style when talking about animated features. First of all, stop-motion animation is making a huge comeback even in a CG heavy environment, with Pirates! Band of Misfits leading the way earlier this year (by the way, check out my review for that, it's pretty cool, if I do say so myself.) The second, and perhaps more surprising, is that these animated movies are touching on a genre admittedly not seen all that much in western animation: horror. I'm not surprised horror is so rare in animated movies in this part of the globe. In North America animation is still mostly sold as family flicks. In other words, some mindless entertainment to stick the young ones infront of so that they'll shut up for an hour and a half. Horror is just asking for children crying, screaming and generally the opposite of good times for parents looking for a moment's peace. One can definitely say parents are too sensitive in protecting their children from "scary" entertainment designed for a younger generation, and kids in fact enjoy being scared more then they let on. I would totally agree with that. That said, ParaNorman is not for children. Not the young, young ones anyway. And it's not because of the "scary-jump-out-and-spook-you moments," or for any disturbing visuals, but because of the morbid themes, the mature tone, and some admittedly very dark plot points. And it's in these very points that I think ParaNorman is not only successful as a film, but it is also breaking some new ground for animated movies.

They're like the Scooby-Gang! Except...not at all...
The movie surrounds Norman, a kid who has the power to see and talk to ghosts. Right out of the gate Norman has this power, and it also seems he's been dealing with it for a while judging by how casually he talks to the spirits, how apathetic he is with dealing with living people, and how inpatient his father is when talking about this issue. Norman just so happens to live in a Salem-like town, known for it's touristy portrayal of witch hunts. However, once a real witch's curses comes to pass and brings zombies to life, it's up to Norman and a small rag-tag group (mostly made out of people who made fun of him before) to stop the curse and restore peace to the town...and that's when the twists happen. I wouldn't dare ruin the second and third act of this film, but suffice to say they do a lot with the standard "zombies attack a small town" formula that hasn't been done before and that I genuinely didn't see coming.

The stop-motion is excellent. This is Laika's second stop-motion children's horror movie (after the wonderfully twisted Coraline) and I gotta say, they're really making a wonderful niche for themselves. And what's even more wonderful is the fact that even though this is another stop-motion film with spooky elements, this film has a distinctive art style all on it's own, really letting the two films stand out from each other. Everything is so detailed in each shot, and with some creative melding of some 2D elements as well as some 3D effects makes this lovingly crafted film a great feast for the eyes. The detail of facial animations alone is astounding and is made possible with the advancements in 3D printing technology, which is just plain cool.

Yup. Toilet paper hands. It's much more scarier then you might think.
Now here's the thing about this movie: it's not very funny. I mean, there are jokes, and gags, some slap-stick and a couple of tongue in cheek references to old horror shlock, but that's not the highlight of this movie. They were able to get some chuckles out of me, but if you're expecting to roll on the floor with laughter during this film, you best look elsewhere. Comedy is not the main focus of this movie. Instead, the film chooses to better focus its attention on two things: it's tone, and it's themes. Tone wise, it's all rather grim. And when you're dealing with death as one of your major plot points, that's no real surprise. The subject matter is probably why some of these jokes don't quite hit their mark. However, when things change from comedy to drama, that's where the script shines. And I don't just mean all the end of the world drama, but even more personal moments where Norman's parents are full on arguing over what to do about Norman, and how Norman's own father treats him like a freak of nature. That stuff hurts, and it's wonderfully brought to life in this film. And the themes this film bring to the table are all wonderfully brought to life in the drama this piece provides. Themes like hatred, bigotry, mob mentality and acceptance are heavy issues that I feel could have been butchered if not for the pacing of this film and it's allowance to give time to let these themes resonate with the audience.

I suppose if I was to complain about one thing, it would be the voice acting. Lots of the side characters were decent (McLovin' himself, Christopher Mintz-Plasse was an interesting choice for the school bully character,) but some other characters were a bit lacking in intensity when delivering on some of these dramatic moments. Sadly, Norman's voice actor, (teen actor Kodi Smit-McPhee) is the biggest offender. He delivers appropriately timid reads neer the beginning of the film when his character is a misunderstood loner, but as the film progresses and the drama ramps up, Smit-McPhee (and some of the other other actors) aren't quite able to deliver the intensity needed for those dramatic moments. Close, but not quite.

The film starts out on a gradual burn, but give it time and I think you'll be rewarded with some amazing animation, some dark plot twists and one of the most compelling third acts to grace a film in a long time. It's the kind of animated film I'm glad exists, as it's much more focused on delivering a strong message than anything else. And most importantly for an animated feature dealing with such grim issues, it takes itself seriously. Writer/director Chris Butler seemed to be very passionate on both his love for old horror films and the themes in this film, and it really shows. While we have more animated homages to horror filmes approaching this year, such as Tim Burton's  Frankenweenie and Genndy Tartakovsky's Hotel Transylvania, judging by the previews they both seem to be much more lighthearted affairs then ParaNorman. It's a risky move to make and animated "kids" movie with such heavy issues and story points, and in that regard this film should be applauded and encouraged! So do this film a favor and go check it out as soon as you can!


- Moo