Review | <i>ParaNorman</i>

If you left 2009’s Coraline convinced you couldn’t imagine a more beautiful, touching and scary stop-motion animated film, then grab your 3D glasses and reserve a ticket for ParaNorman, the instant classic from Focus Features and Laika.

Set in Blythe Hollow, Massachusetts, ParaNorman opens with Norman (voiced by Kodi Smit-McPhee), an 11-year-old who can see and talk to ghosts, an ability that’s made him the town pariah a target of ridicule by everyone from juvenile delinquent Alvin (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) to his own father (Jeff Garlin).

When Norman’s Uncle Prenderghast (John Goodman) dies, he returns as a ghost to reveal that the ability to speak to the dead runs in the family. He also divulges that, with his passing, his nephew has inherited the duty to keep Blythe Hollow safe from a curse cast by a witch 300 years ago. It’s now up to Norman to counter the curse, which raises the dead, by reading a special book at her gravesite on the anniversary of her death -- and what do you know, that anniversary’s tonight!

Alas, Norman botches the reading, unleashing the curse, and the walking dead, upon his town. Now he, fellow outcast Neil (Tucker Albrizzi), Neil’s meat-head brother Mitch (Casey Affleck) and Norman’s shallow sister Courtney (Anna Kendrick) have to stop the zombies and end the witch’s curse before it’s too late.

With ParaNorman, Laika has another hit on its hands, one whose attention to detail rivals The Fantastic Mr. Fox and whose animation tops Coraline, the studio’s previous kid-oriented horror/comedy. When you aren’t laughing at ParaNorman you’re crying at ParaNorman, and often you’re doing both at the same time. In fact, a new term is needed to describe the emotional rollercoaster you’ll go through while in the theater (Craughing? Oh, well, just bring a hankie). Directors Sam Fell and Chris Butler (who also wrote the screenplay) have said they aimed to create a kids’ horror movie on par with ‘80s classics like The Goonies and Ghostbusters, and with ParaNorman they succeeded, authoring a hilarious film that isn’t afraid to mess with genre expectations.

Of course there’s a lot of gallows humor as Norman interacts with the dead, freaking out neighbors who can’t see that, for example, the road kill he’s making kissy faces at is actually an adorable raccoon ghost. Much of the credit for ParaNorman’s humor goes to voice actors Smit-McPhee and Albrizzi, who nail every frustrated grunt and disappointed sigh at the clueless adults surrounding them. Although there’s some mild swearing, the jokes feel refreshingly honest and believable, from Norman tentatively asking Mr. Prenderghast if, by swearing an oath, he means “the F word” to Courtney’s ham-fisted attempts to get Mitch’s attention.

As for the world itself, it’s no boast to say ParaNorman has advanced stop-motion techniques beyond anything audiences have ever seen. Visually complex, the film’s naturalistic lighting brings out beautiful details in the gauze-filled skylines and realistic puppets. Fell and Butler have a lot of fun mimicking classic horror movie lighting, too, and the film is a tapestry of clever film references (keep your eyes peeled for my favorite, the Suspiria Blue Drink vending machine). The 3D is also surprisingly great, emphasizing the puppets’ three-dimensionality without pulling you out of the story. And if you thought the climactic battle in Coraline was a dazzling piece of animation, wait until you see Norman face off against the witch.

But the greatest visual accomplishment is how wonderfully ugly the characters look. Character designer Heidi Smith makes her cinematic debut with the obese, spindly and all-around weird inhabitants of Blythe Holloware, creations so lovingly detailed their grossness actually comes out the other side as gorgeous. I dare you to tear your eyes from the drama teacher’s swinging rolls of arm fat or the broken blood vessels on Mr. Prederghast’s nose -- you’ll be too absorbed by the beautiful train wreck of the town’s denizens to look away. The dead look downright pretty compared to the living, but that contrast does not take away from the frightening moments as zombies pop out of nowhere in the glorious tradition of teen slashers.

The more pervasive scare is the film’s refusal to soften the danger to the kids, however. Norman literally faces death every day, and ParaNorman doesn’t flinch from the very real possibility that Norman could join his ghost friends if he screws up. Nor does it shy away from the bullying or Norman’s sense of powerlessness. Not only do Norman and Neil expect to be targeted, they expect it will go on for the rest of their lives -- isn’t quasi-homeless Mr. Prenderghast living proof of this? While Norman holds a more idealistic mindset, Neil depressingly declares that if someone weaker than them were to come along they’d probably bully him.

It’s this painfully honest examination of cruelty that really drives the emotional core of ParaNorman. Nothing is sugarcoated in Norman’s world; the message isn’t some sweet Disney tale of friendship conquering evil, it’s a warning that bullies come in all shapes and sizes. Sometimes they’re the kids at school – but more often they’re your parents, your teachers and the myriad other adults who are supposed to protect you but don’t because you just don’t fit their worldview. When ParaNorman goes dark it goes dark; the story’s central twist tearing at you when you least expect it and not letting up until the film’s tear-stained conclusion.

ParaNorman opens Aug. 17.

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