Monday, August 20, 2012

the amazing, beautiful, spooky, and smart paranorman

Eleven year-old Norman (Kodi Smit-McPhee) is not happy. His older sister Courtney (Anna Kendrick) doesn't like him much, his parents don't understand him, and the kids at school, most of them downright bullies like Alvin (Christopher Mintz-Plasse), think he's a freak. The only person who understands him is his loving grandmother (Elaine Stritch), which is great — except she's dead. Norman can talk to ghosts, and although he seems to enjoy his special ability at times, especially where Grandma is concerned, for most of the other aspects of his life it causes him a great deal of grief.

Norman and friends must save their town
Norman not only speaks with the dead, but he seems more comfortable with them than the living. His bedroom is covered from floor to ceiling with zombie and horror movie paraphernalia. His walk to school is populated by locals from every era, many of them who left this world in an unconventional, even gruesome fashion. To add to the spooky factor, Norman lives in a Salem-like town called Blithe Hollow, whose chief industry is tourism surrounding a local witch who was hanged 300 years ago, and whose commemorative statue is on the square outside City Hall.

Just as Norman is about to get some normalcy in his life — he has made his first real friend, Neil (Tucker Albrizzi), he is also informed by his uncle Prenderghast (John Goodman) that his ability to talk to the dead (which the recently deceased Prenderghast also shared) makes him Blithe Hollow's only hope. He must save the town by stopping the witch's curse — from raising the dead.
Neil: "So is it true?"
Norman: "What?"
Neil: "Do you see ghosts like everywhere, all the time?"
Norman: "Uh, yeah"
Neil: "Awesome! Do you think you can see my dog, Bub? He was ran over by an animal rescue van. Tragic and ironic. We buried him in the yard. Could you see him?"
ParaNorman, like its hero, is unusual and unexpected. It's stop-motion animation melded with computer graphics is positively amazing, even beautiful, to look at. It also doesn't pull any punches. It's downright scary and gross when it needs to be. Kids (and adults) will love it, as it features good old-fashioned monster-jumping-out-at-you thrills. But ParaNorman also has something to say, about bullying and the not-so-nice nature of humans through history. The people of Blithe Hollow are far more terrifying than many of the dead folks that Norman encounters. The film's re-enactment of Salem-like witch hunting may even cause some movie-goers to think while they're laughing at the in-jokes and enjoying the top-notch visuals.

The characters in ParaNorman are also a little off the norm. The designers and animators have not only given them exaggerated features, like super-wide hips and skinny waists for Norman's mom and sister, and elongated jaws and tiny foreheads for some of his not-so-smart neighbors, but they have actually tried to make some of the characters appear older, something unusual in current animated films, where every character has the same glossy, poreless sheen. Norman's mother sports some serious bags under her eyes and a poochy tummy, while his dad has a beer belly and tired expression. Norman himself has a lopsided nose and thick eyebrows (which other family members share) which add to his personality.

Portland, OR based Laika, whose first animated feature was Coraline, has done a magnificent job on ParaNorman. Its use of 3D printing technology, in its infancy when the company made Coraline in 2009, enables the animation studio to give Norman & Co. over 1 million facial expressions. Directors Sam Fell's (The Tale of Despereaux, Flushed Away) and Chris Butler's attention to detail and love of classic horror films shines from every scene. ParaNorman is a film to be savored, from the bristly hair on Norman's head, to beautiful shadows cast in a forest at night, to the way a zombie's lower jaw hangs precariously from his face. Good news for fans of the studio's work, Laika's next two rumored projects are adaptations of Wildwood, based on the debut children’s novel from Colin Meloy (The Decemberists), and Goblins, from the novel by Philip Reeve.” Like Norman, it looks like Laika's heart and talents lie with the strange and spooky.

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