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ParaNorman: Bullies, Pubescence, Zombies… Oh, The Horror!

As the titular character walked down the street at the beginning of ParaNorman, Laika’s sensational and superior follow-up to Coraline, we watch him wave hello to ghosts along the way. We marvel at the crisp animation and clever character design. We laugh at the plentiful sight gags and puns. We see his warmth in his interactions with these ghosts, endearing us to our hero. We watch live humans leer at him, and he gently dodges their gazes, revealing to us his place in this world as a misfit and the main conflict of the film– the difficulty of growing to understand those who may never understand us. All of this within a sequence that lasts maybe thirty seconds– and we haven’t even come close to the zombies yet. ParaNorman is a massive success not only because it stuffs so much great animation, visual humor, and wit into each moment… it’s because it stuffs so much heart and character into each moment. By film’s end, I laughed, wiped a tear from my eye, and struggled to wrap my brain around how a studio would dare make an animated film so clever and original. This will easily be the best animated feature you will see in 2012, and it may be one of the best films you’ll see all year.

We open with a movie-within-a-movie, as Norman (voiced by Kodi Smit-McPhee) watches zombie films with his grandmother. When his parents come in (Leslie Mann and Jeff Garlin), they verbally berate him– Grandma’s been dead for some time now. As Norman goes to school, we learn Norman is the “freak” that every school has: some are scared of him, others bully him, and few seem interested in being his friend. When Neil (Tucker Albrizzi) recognizes a fellow outcast and attempts to befriend him, Norman backs away: why would anyone want to be his friend? Furthermore, why get close to anyone as they’ll just end up mocking him like the rest of the world? Meanwhile, his crazy uncle (John Goodman) has been trying to track him down– turns out, speaking to ghosts runs in the family. A witch, who during the pilgrim years famously cursed those who executed her to come back to life as zombies, can only be kept at bay if Norman does what his uncle wants. However, between complications with his uncle, the constant looming threat of a bully (Chris Mintz-Plasse), and his parents keeping him strictly grounded, keeping those zombies in the ground where they belong proves a difficult task.

This film is a joyous reminder that a film about kids that is made for kids doesn’t have to treat its audience like kids. ParaNorman isn’t afraid to have moments that are scary, off-color, or even gory. There are plenty of jokes that may sail over the youngest audience’s heads but will delight teenagers and adults (the bully and Norman’s sister provide most of that humor). It’s also complete with references to old horror films, zombie tropes, and John Carpenter– the fantastic score by Jon Brion is a take on the synthesizer-laden Carpenter scores of the 80s. Too often animated films feel the need to resort to the lowest common denominator level of humor, as if kids can only enjoy jokes that are either loud and obnoxious or purely scatological– here’s looking at you, Shrek series! ParaNorman is never noisy– it’s delicate, warm, and as close to nuanced as you can accuse animation of being. Much of the film’s character work resides in their animation designs. We can tell what Norman’s sister is like just by her facial features. Same for Neil’s brother, same for the crazy uncle. They may seem upfront like cliches (bitchy gossip queen, airheaded jock, etc), but there are layers of depth that get exposed as the plot rolls forward. There’s a great moment early on in which Norman’s parents are fighting in front of him, and the frame merely show Norman’s head flanked by two pudgy adult bellies. It provides humor and context: this is the world from Norman’s point of view. His parents can’t even see him, much less who he is.

Once the zombies do appear (not a spoiler: it’s an inevitability), the movie seems to settle into a rhythm where the point of the film is how to stop the zombies. However, this is when ParaNorman really shines. While a car chase is witty and gorgeously animated, the proceedings refuse to become manic. The characters still build, the jokes are never forced. Zombies never outshine Norman as the central focus of the plot, which is an admirable accomplishment– especially once you see the zombies, whose sagging flesh, exposed bones, and hands reaching out at you in 3D are truly a sight to behold. Without revealing anything about the film’s climax, it manages to feel surreal and intimate, full of heart instead of noise. By the time we get to a character that reveals something about themselves that I’ve never seen in a kid’s movie before, I was past merely touched. I was impressed. It’s easy to make a film that follows the rules, tells the usual story, and does a spectacular job of it. Here’s a film that breaks those rules, branches out from the usual, and remains spectacular. Its hero isn’t the usual misfit, its villains aren’t the usual nefarious threats. Even its message about bullying is far from the normal “bullies are bad” lameness crammed down our throats in unoriginal art. ParaNorman, like its hero, embraces being the freak. Its eccentricity makes it special. The audience is better for it.

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~ by russellhainline on August 18, 2012.

3 Responses to “ParaNorman: Bullies, Pubescence, Zombies… Oh, The Horror!”

  1. Reblogged this on deepakasays and commented:
    Great characters

  2. […] Magnus Borjeson, and Six Drummers, Sound of Noise 3. Alan Silvestri, The Avengers 2. Jon Brion, ParaNorman 1. Benh Zeitlin and Dan Romer, Beasts of the Southern […]

  3. I am regular visitor, how are you everybody? This paragraph posted at this web site is in fact good.

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