MovieJay Reviews ‘ParaNorman’

I like Norman. He can see dead people, but more than that, he’s friendly to them. If you could see unsightly, ectoplasmic green otherworldly folk, would you return their hello on your way to work or would you keep your head down, pretending to text? You know, the way we do with living people.

The kid in The Sixth Sense could see dead people too, but he was uneasy about it. With Norman (voiced by Kodi Smit-McPhee) it’s just a fact of life and part of his daily routine. Like any normal kid, he gets up for school, has breakfast, brushes his teeth, combs his hair and then says goodbye to grandma (Elaine Stritch) who’s sitting on the couch and knitting like she always does. She’s dead of course and so that makes Norman look like he’s talking to himself.

On his way to school, neighbourly dead folks wish him a good day, including a suicide as well as a leather-clad greaser who appears to have expired back when the Fonz would’ve won People’s Sexiest Man of the Year. Norman says hello back and engages in thoughtful conversations with some of them. His parents are concerned for his mental well-being, his older sister is totally annoyed by it, the school bully lets him have it on the regular, and Norman’s new friend would really, really like it if Norman could play fetch with his dead dog.

Maybe Norman is nice to these ghosts because unlike the living, they accept him for who he is and don’t make demands. That is, until Norman’s estranged uncle (John Goodman) seeks him out, imploring that he use his talents to help fend off the curse of a young witch that the town elders persecuted centuries ago. She had the same talents that Norman possesses, but back then you were put to death for it. Naturally, she’s not very happy about that and in a couple days she’s going to unleash one heck of an apocalypse on sleepy Blithe Hollow.

That’s the set-up for ParaNorman, a movie with retro-camp appeal harking back to the days of Hanna-Barbera and their Saturday morning serials like Scooby Doo. Directed by Sam Fell (The Tale of Despereaux) and newcomer Chris Butler, the film is the second release from Laika Studios, the Portland-based stop-motion animation studio responsible for Coraline. That one was directed by Henry Selick (The Nightmare Before Christmas) and although it is gleefully more macabre and creepier in tone and atmosphere, it along with ParaNorman signals that animation is no longer just for the little ones. By the end of both movies, I found it refreshing to realize that these weren’t made simply to distract or to shut kids up for a couple hours. This movie is admittedly silly, but it has a way of dealing with adult ideas in a way that isn’t condescending to kids.

The movie deals with bullying, death, peer pressure from the mob, and the notion of individuality in a world bent on valuing an abstract idea of what normal should be. What’s clever is that ParaNorman deals with those things without being preachy about them. There are lessons here but the feel of it remains securely in Saturday morning mode instead of drifting off into after-school-special territory. I liked the way we see how bullying works, in all its subtle forms, and that we’re all guilty of it at times, even that darned witch-girl with the centuries-old grudge.

The revelation here is in the stop-motion animation, with a seamless marriage of CGI and 3D technology that is as smooth and yummy to look at as you’ve ever seen. The process is painstaking and terribly long: first the actors do their voice work, an animator makes an image of the character, and then designers construct the robot-like puppets that are eventually used in the movie. No claymation here. Then, tens of thousands of facial expressions made on computer are printed out using 3D software and the resulting masks are hooked up with magnets to the puppet. The scene showing Norman in front of the bathroom mirror took one year until they got it just right. On a good day, the production team would shoot up to 3 seconds of footage.

The animation is a marvel to behold, and if the story isn’t, well, equally unique or original, what redeems it are its themes. We pick on people, we get picked on, we judge and we ostracize others. We see people as types and then use it to pigeonhole them. The characters start out that way: the ignorant father (Jeff Garlin), the concerned mother (Leslie Mann), the dumb jock (Casey Affleck), the bubbleheaded older sis (Anna Kendrick), the bully (Christopher Mintz-Plasse), the fat kid (Tucker Albrizzi). By the end of the movie, we’re confident that they’ve learned something about themselves that they’ll use in their next adventure. That they’ve grown a little out of the shell of those archetypes.

Parents are better judges than myself. They can decide if they think this kind of material is appropriate for the younger ones. There are depictions of hangings, really dopey zombies and the body parts that get away from them, and death a constant theme throughout. Some 8 yr-old’s might get spooked while others will greet it with the fascination that youngsters did a generation ago upon discovering shows like The Hilarious House of Frightenstein.

With its sly pop culture digs, its goofy retro appeal and its thoughtful themes, ParaNorman should find itself in time to be a reliable watch on Halloween sleepovers.

*** (out of 4)