A gorgeously-animated stop-motion feature, Paranorman makes up for a leisurely pace with its beautiful hand-crafted feel: the painstaking level of detail that went into the production of the movie is evident in every frame, and we never seem to mind when the story takes a break and we can focus on the visuals.
Of course, that may limit the appeal of the film, and younger children may not get out as much from it as their parents. But this isn’t a film for the youngest of audiences anyway: a full-fledged zombie movie throwback, Paranorman is surprisingly adult in nature and genuinely scary at times, with a mounting sense of dread throughout. Parents be warned.
Norman Babcock (voiced by Kodi Smit-McPhee) is a loner, bullied at school, obsessed with horror movies, who – with shades of The Sixth Sense – can see (and talk to) ghosts. No one believes him, of course: his parents (Leslie Mann and Jeff Garlin) worry about his grasp on reality, while his sister (Anna Kendrick) is just embarrassed to be around him.
He isn’t exactly popular at school, either – tormented by bully Alvin (Christopher Mintz-Plasse, effectively playing against type) – but he’s befriended by another outcast, the pudgy Neil (Tucker Albrizzi), who even indulges his ghost-seeing ability.
But one person knows exactly what Norman is going through: “crazy” uncle Prenderghast (John Goodman), who Norman is forbidden from seeing, can also see the dead, and has been protecting the sleepy town of Blithe Hollow from a witch’s curse. When the uncle dies, he passes on this responsibility to Norman, who doesn’t quite get things right and unleashes a zombie plague upon the city.
Paranorman has a tendency to move slowly, and downplays the paranormal threats to the point of losing story tension. Ultimately, however, while the film features a number of loving nods to horror films (and be sure to check out the décor in Norman’s bedroom), it becomes something else – a surprisingly touching story about outcasts, bullying, and revenge.
And it just looks so good; not all audience members will be able to appreciate it, but anyone with an interest in animation will really have an appreciation for the craft that went into the making of the film. Bonus: a terrific synth-infused zombie movie soundtrack by Jon Brion that creates a real sense of atmosphere.
Production company Laika was previously behind the excellent Neil Gaiman/Henry Selick film Coraline; that film had a similarly offbeat concept that really paid off, though it, too, may have flown over the head of younger audience members.
Debut writer-director Sam Fell previously worked on Coraline and Tim Burton’s The Corpse Bride as a storyboard artist; co-director Sam Fell previously made the stop-motion Flushed Away and the stop-motion-influenced The Tale of Despereaux.
While most mainstream animation has felt like factory product in recent years – 2012 has seen Madagascar 3 and Ice Age 4 from the major studios, and even Pixar has disappointed recently with Cars 2 and Brave – it’s wonderful to see stop-motion efforts like Paranorman and The Pirates! Band of Misfits receive wide releases. These two features should be frontrunners for 2012’s Best Animated Film Oscar. Story flaws acknowledged, Paranorman is one of my favorite films of the year.
Note: stick around after the credits for a short but revealing (and stop-motion animated!) look at the behind-the-scenes process.