Typically reserved for leftover studio slop (does anyone remember the Joseph Gordon-Levitt bike messenger thriller Premium Rush?), the month of August is almost always the unofficial demise of the summer movie season. What an incredible surprise it was, then, to find ParaNorman nestled into the late August doldrums. Why a film stuffed with such movie magic was left to die at the late August box office is beyond me (it grossed $50 million, good but nothing special) – ParaNorman, a thrilling coming-of-age dramedy/zombie horror hybrid, wasn’t just a late summer surprise, it was the best animated film of 2012 along with the similarly themed Frankenweenie, sorry Pixar. Nominated for the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature, ParaNorman restores the inner child in your heart, waking you up to a world of infectious imagination, and now that it is on Blu-Ray, DVD, and On Demand, plus the fact that zombies are ruling the pop culture world at the moment, it could not be a better time to take a MOVIE REWIND:
Similar to Laika Animation Studios’ last stop-motion masterpiece, Coraline, ParaNorman tells the story of an isolated young child split between two realities – one like ours and one far more supernatural. This time it’s Norman (the innocently toned Kodi Smit-McPhee), a sweet little kid who’s lost in our world – the town bully (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) picks on him, his parents (Jeff Garlin, Leslie Mann) don’t understand him, and his sister (Anna Kendrick) thinks he’s a freak – but thrives among the dead thanks to his ability to see ghosts both animal and human. While the town of Blithe Hallow may reject Norman for his supernatural ways, they’ll soon need his skills and courage to save the day when a 300-year-old Witch’s curse awakens the dead and threatens to destroy the town.
Sound like B-movie horror schlock? Good, because the makers of ParaNorman know just that and use it to fuel a film that pulsates “movie cool” in every frame. From its ingenious opening – it starts with a vintage “Feature Presentation” title straight out of an 80s grindhouse, one that would make Tarantino super proud, before transitioning into one of Norman’s homemade, low budget zombie horror movies a la George A. Romero – to its countless horror references (there’s allusions to everything from kiddy horror like Scooby-Doo to more adult darkness in the vein of Tim Burton), ParaNorman hooked me in almost instantly and kept me smiling the entire time. I’m normally not a fan of stop-motion films but Laika Studios knows how to do them right – there’s no other way to say it, ParaNorman is visual magic, complete with textures and surfaces that blend claymation and animation to eye popping delight.
Even better is that the film has the emotions and tones to match its visual mastery. Deftly blending humor (Norman’s one friend, Neil (Tucker Albrizzi), steals the show) and spooky, spine-tingling thrills (the eery, creepy-crawly things that await Norman in a haunted house are chill-inducing), ParaNorman is on par with the great Pixar films that know how to entertain both kids and adults simultaneously. It helps that the entire thing is flat out charming too, and an early scene, in which we first see Norman walking down the street greeting ghosts left and right, swept me up in movie enchantment. The cast also turns clay into characters thanks to their impressive voice work. From McPhee’s vocal innocence to Mintz-Plasse’s douchebag of a bully and Kendrick’s girly girl sister, the voice work entertains as much as the dazzling stop motion.
While young children will certainly be scared, part of me wishes the filmmakers weren’t so invested in catering to families, for just as things begin to get real scary the film always pulls back to deliver spooks over outright horror. Unfortunately, this is never more true than in the movie’s climax, which ultimately becomes an ante-climax when coming-of-age morals outweigh the horror of the witch’s curse. Though frustrating, it’s easy to forgive in a movie of such charm. The biggest frustration was merely the film’s release date – why not release this stop-motion beast during Halloween? It’s a shame ParaNorman was condemned to late August for it deserved so much better.
With memorable horror homages and original humor and thrills, ParaNorman was a late summer movie with early summer heart and imagination. If the late August blues kept you from the theaters at the end of the summer, stop what you’re doing and rent ParaNorman tonight, or at least before it has a chance to take the Oscar on February 24th. Whether you’re a fan of this animated subgenre or not, the bottom line is that movie magic is alive and well in this stop-motion marvel – how many other films can you even say that about? Between Coraline and ParaNorman, Pixar better watch its back, for Laika Studios is one zombie they might not be able to outrun for much longer.
Article by Zack Sharf