Film Review – ParaNorman
I love stop-motion animation. It played a big role in the formation of my movie sensibility growing up, particularly projects like Wallace & Gromit and The Nightmare Before Christmas. There is a sense of it being the rawest form of filmmaking to me, where you are literally making a movie frame by frame. That kind of dedication has always amazed me, so I was very excited upon discovering the new film ParaNorman.
The story follows a misunderstood kid named Norman (Kodi Smit-McPhee), who can talk to ghosts, much to the chagrin of his parents, who think he is a bit crazy. When a century-old curse is unleashed upon his town, it is up to Norman to figure out the mystery and save the day.
You might not be able to judge it just from the synopsis, but this film is incredibly charming. It follows the Pixar style of filmmaking that both kids and adults can enjoy, and runs the line of being child-friendly while also on the border of being too scary, much the same way Coraline did. The topic of misunderstandings and misconceptions are at the heart of the story, not just with the other characters’ perceptions towards Norman, but also reflected in the audience’s perceptions of all the characters.
I wasn’t initially sold on the look of the animation here, mostly because of the character design. It looks less refined than most stop-motion animated films we see—but, when seen within the context of the film, it fits perfectly. The world of Norman is quirky and kind of off, and so the visuals end up feeling appropriate for the residents.
One of the most intriguing elements of the film’s production is that it was produced by Laika Entertainment. They’re not necessarily a household name at this point, but their first feature production was the relatively well-known Corpse Bride. Even more intriguingly, they were responsible for Coraline, which is one of the best stop-motion animated films of all time. It is amazing to think about, since Coraline was three years ago, but ParaNorman is their follow-up, and this could be a real turning point for the company. Both of those prior films were nominated for Best Animated Feature Film at the Academy Awards, and given the modest reception Brave has received, ParaNorman should prove to be a strong contender again this year. Another nomination—or, even better, a win—could provide a lot of fuel for the company going forward. Given the quality of the projects they are putting out and that they have a full slate of films in development, they should start to be in the conversation for best animated production company (well, at least second place, following Pixar, and challenging Aardman Animations for best stop-motion work).
This film was the work of up-and-coming directors Sam Fell and Chris Butler, who have a history of working on Laika projects as well as Aardman Animation projects. While it’s too early to say if they’ll have the long-term success of Henry Selick (The Nightmare Before Christmas) or Nick Park (Wallace & Gromit), they are off to good starts.
A lot of the success of the film is put upon the character of Norman, and Kodi Smit-McPhee is the perfect choice for the role. Smit-McPhee has a meekness and a great deal of heart that fit this character spot on, and have serviced him well in the past in movies like The Road and Let Me In. Once again, he is incredibly charming, but I would like to see him branch out a little bit more as he moves towards adulthood (or else risk becoming a more dramatic Michael Cera). When Norman is paired with his friend Neil (Tucker Albrizzi), they provide one of the best duos I’ve seen on screen this year. The rest of the cast does an excellent job, and the voice talent is loaded with stars, but I think Tucker Albrizzi proves that it is best to cast for the part, not the name—though I’m always on board with John Goodman and Leslie Mann.
ParaNorman is a slam dunk. It is worth your money. This is clearly going to be one of the best animated films of the year. While the concept isn’t entirely original, the execution is fantastic and does a good job of putting a new spin on an old trope. The film will be available in 3D, and given that Coraline was one of the few 3D films I felt was worth it, I was a bit disappointed with the results—there are definitely a few moments that are cool, but it didn’t resonate as strongly in that regard. You could do worse in picking a 3D film, but you should be perfectly fine seeing it in 2D. Either way, it will be a pleasure for everyone in the family, as there is material for both kids and adults. It might be a bit scary for skittish or young kids, but if you think they are ready, it will be a treat.
Final Grade: A-