Friday 21 September 2012

ParaNorman Review - A Tale of the Dead, Full of Life

*This review is largely spoiler free, but read cautiously if you haven’t seen the film yet*

ParaNorman is the latest from Laika, the swiftly-rising stop-motion house who arrived on the scene with 2009's Coraline. Coraline was fantastic, a dark, refreshingly tensely paced, nuanced and stylish film that not only cemented its director Henry Selick's reputation as a fine-filmmaker, but that of Laika as an artistically inventive and narratively bold studio. ParaNorman continues that success, as it is an inspiringly original and thoughtfully ghoulish film, that's also surprising fun!

ParaNorman, which was released about a month ago in the US, but is only just out here in the UK, follows young loner Norman Babcock, a lonely child who prefers the company of the dead; as Norman can see and communicate with ghosts, including his recently deceased Grandma. Don't worry though, it's not all as creepy as it sounds, as ParaNorman shows that others are at fault for their ignoarance and disapproval of individuality; the film's motto says it all: Weird Wins. And speaking of weird, Norman soon has a run in with a less than winning weirdo, his Uncle Prenderghast, who shares Norman's supernatural abilities. He informs Norman that the witch's curse, that their town happily exploits for merchandise, is real, and will come to fruition very soon without Norman's help. Norman must then face a battle within himself: does he want to risk seeming like a freak yet again, or do what's right in the face of fear to try and save his town? What follows from here is 90 minutes of spooky-fantastic fun.

Set in the small New England town of Blithe Hollow, ParaNorman comes from the imagination and childhood of Chris Butler, storyboard supervisor on Coraline, and is directed by Butler and Flushed  Away director Sam Fell. Because that was something that The Art and Making of ParaNorman stressed heavily: this is Chris Butler's film. Butler took his own childhood feelings of anguish and loneliness and imbued them into the essence of Norman; the world is his, the story is his... just with more zombies. In much the same way that Brave was Brenda Chapman's film, this is Chris Butler's. So, with the winning team of an experienced animation director in Fell, and an enthused, creative mind in Butler, at the helm, and given that it hails from the on the up-creative juggernauts at Laika, ParaNorman was destined to be a really good film; but from its clever opening parodies, to its touching character moments, to its jaw-drapping animation, ParaNorman easily crosses the border from good to great!

Much like Coraline before it, the story in ParaNorman is refreshingly original. Having few of the tropes of a "traditional" animated film, it instead has subtle character development, spooky twists and a surprisingly high amount of comedy. ParaNorman does though lack the tense pacing of Coraline, and thus isn't as scary, in fact, although, for me, it's not quite as fantastic as Coraline is, ParaNorman is far more accessible. Coraline had fantastic characters, great character designs and was very stylishly directed, but also had a sinister tone to it, whereas ParaNorman has all of the above, but with a much more light-hearted tone - even the zombies are hilarious!

To say that this is more light-hearted than Coraline was, though, is both a gross understatement and a slightly misleading statement: the spookiness is still there, admittedly lessened, but ParaNorman is also riotously funny! Aardman's The Pirates! was wonderfully quirky and hilarious, but ParaNorman rivals that for its sheer hilarity. Every scene with Norman's best/only friend Neil and his dimwitted big brother Mitch are an absolute hoot; Neil has a loveable charm, and Mitch is just plain hilarious - there's a line from him right at the end of the film that will likely draw the ire of parents, but was fantastically funny. Yet both characters are used tenderly in key scenes also. Because that's the greatest thing about ParaNorman's use of comedy: it deftly blends with the film as a whole, offsetting the laughs against scares and emotional poignancy.

But the scares, much like in Coraline, really intensify in the last ten minutes or so, leading to a phenomenally elaborate set piece that stuns you when you remember this is stop-motion (another reason that The Art and Making of ParaNorman is a must buy for fans). I'm rather squeamish, but I wasn't particularly fazed by the scares of the film (unlike in Coraline - the Other Mother still terrifies me...), but young children might be, so be cautious about taking very young children to see this film. The fantastic climactic whoosh of the end of the film crescendos nicely into a quietly emotional moment that will definitely move you.

The film has a great moral too, one of tolerance, understanding and kindness. The film's strong stance against bullying is admirable, much in the same way that The Lorax's environmental-conservation one was. For all the 'super-mum' wining about the exposure of death to their children, ParaNorman provides a great message for kids - although teens and adults may enjoy this film more than children will.

I touched briefly on the zombies, but feel more mention should go to them. In a film like this, with advertising like this received, it would be easy to think the zombies would be your typical brain-dead groaning killers, but ParaNorman's zombies are so much more complex. They have layers of character and depth, bringing to the forefront the dilemma of who they were before they were zombies. The witch who sets all of this in motion, likewise, without giving too much away, is a complex enigma; it's, again, very refreshing that there's no true villain here.

The zombies are also fantastically well designed. Equal attention is given to the zombies and the townspeople as to Norman and the main ensemble. All too often in animation we get decent, but bland and uninspired, character designs that we've seen a hundred times before, but in ParaNorman we get wonderful, stylised and original designs - largely thanks to Heidi Smith's pre-production work! The designs also lend themselves to the comedy of the film too.

The cast that lent their voices to the wonderfully designed and realised characters also deserve praise. Led by Kodi Smit-McPhee as a pitch-perfect (yet occasionally whiny) Norman, the voice cast also features Anna Kendrick and Leslie Mann, as well as Jeff Garlin and John Goodman. The highlights of the vocal performances for me though were Tucker Albrizzi and Casey Affleck as Neil and Mitch respectively, they were hilarious.

The animation is top-notch too. Laika have been extolled several times as the next big thing in stop-motion animation, and there's certainly validity to that argument. Their use of Rapid Prototyping technology to create 'replacement faces' for a wide array of nuanced expressions - and the partial translucency that that lends to them: the glowing ears that Damien spoke about in his guest review - greatly increases the efficiency for sure. But efficiency isn't what we really care about when watching a film, but fortunately, what we do care about, the fantastic animation and the elaborate, stylish sets and scenes, are there in bucket loads! Particularly in the film's climatic finale; it was a visceral, eerie, and wholly impressive, spectacle.

Stop-motion always gives animation a real, tangible - yet heightened - feel, and one thing that Laika has over fellow-stop-motion giant Aardman are their textures; the hair looks real, the clothes look real, but they're on very abstract animated designs - it's an impressive combination! I'm tempted to lean towards favouring Aardman's fantastic animation in The Pirates! over this though (they had a freaking whale flying through the air!), but only narrowly.

So, to be honest, I had few criticisms with ParaNorman: the story was unpredictable, and filled with a plentiful amount of twists and turns, it was hilarious, solemn and mildly spooky, all at the same time. And the animation was stylishly brilliant - it also had a solid score by Jon Brion! For me, it wasn't quite as good as Coraline, both in terms of story and animation, but that's a pretty high measuring stick, so that's by no means a bad thing. I do agree with what Damien said though, that Laika could use a bit of diversity: their two films so far have both been brilliant, but I'd like to see them tackle another genre soon!

ParaNorman's certainly received very strong reviews, and though I don't think it's the best animated film of the year, it's still a mighty fine one! ParaNorman is a breath of fresh air in animation; animation can't just be pigeonholed as family fare, it can be spooky, it can be tense, it can be different, and Laika get that. The film deserves to do a lot better at the box-office, Laika deserve it for their hard work. While it may not be wholly suitable for younger children, ParaNorman's a bloody good film!


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