[Review] – ParaNorman

23 Aug

Title: ParaNorman
Year: 2012
Directors: Sam Fell and Chris Butler
Writer: Chris Butler, based on a story by Arianne Sutner and Stephen Stone
Starring: Kodi Smit-McPhee, Tucker Albrizzi, Anna Kendrick, Casey Affleck, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Leslie Mann, Jeff Garlin, Elaine Stritch, John Goodman, Ariel Winter
MPAA Rating: PG, scary action and images, thematic elements, some rude humor and language
Runtime: 93 min
IMDb Rating: 7.3
Rotten Tomatoes: 86%
Metacritic: 73

The people at Laika are the kind of people I love. Founded in 2005, the Oregon-based stop-motion animation studio did work on that year’s Corpse Bride, and they released their first feature as a company in 2009 with Coraline, the absolutely stunning adaptation of Neil Gaiman‘s novel. That film just blew me away because of how exquisitely it was made, and it totally established Laika as an animation studio with aesthetic sensibilities that really spoke to me, and I honestly couldn’t wait to see what they did next.

Well, what they’ve done next, three years after their debut feature, is ParaNorman, and I really can’t believe I’m about to say this, but for the second year in a row now, the best animated film of the year hasn’t come from Pixar. This film is just absolutely tremendous, offering this gorgeous animation that’s just ridiculously well-made and detailed as hell, as well as a story that’s actually seriously well-written and that, much like Pixar, achieves some serious success in getting its story to appeal to both the kids the film obviously targets as well as the parents that will take those kids to the theater.

Ever since I first saw the trailer for this one, I knew I would immediately love what it had in store for us. It’s about Norman, a small boy from a small town who actually has the ability to communicate with the dead. And, as his town is being threatened by a centuries-old curse, Norman will have to push these abilities of his to the limits, not only having to deal with the zombies and the rest of otherworldly creatures that pop up, but with those pesky grown-ups, too. What I loved was that even though this one has a lot of hilarious parts in it, it actually likes going in for some scary thrills from time to time that I imagine will have awesome effects on the kids that go see it; it takes balls for an animated film to go for those scarier tones, and in ParaNorman the payoff was huge.

Though I guess you could just stop me dead on my tracks for referring to this in any way as a “kids film”. I mean, yes, the vast majority of animated films out there are aimed towards kids, but you have the folks at Pixar, at Studio Ghibli, and certainly now at Laika too, that have most ably been capable of transcending that kind of label with their output. Yes, the main audience for this one will be kids, but if you really get into it, I think there’s actually far more for adults to love about this one. From the scary bits, to the fact that your jaw will be hitting the floor just because of how stunning some of the visuals are, to the fact that this film actually poses quite a lot of provoking questions about life and death; hell, you could argue that smaller kids should stay away from this one.

The other characteristic this one shares with the Pixar masterpieces is what, to me, made Pixar what it is now, and something that only the Emeryville company could accomplish at first but that some others are now replicating, and that’s the fact that ParaNorman has a lot of heart in it. It’s just super mature, and smart, and it respects its characters, which in turn enables us as an audience to really lose ourselves in their world, get charmed by the characters and care a lot for what may or may not happen to them.

People look at Norman like he’s just a total nut-job, and that’s because they don’t know, nor would they understand, that he hangs around with ghosts and sees stuff they would never comprehend, so there’s that really awesome spin on the outcast, misunderstood kid protagonist in this film. And Kodi Smit-McPhee, who voices him, does a wonderful job at it. He’s lonely because he’s the weird kid, and there’s absolutely nothing he can do about it, nothing he can do to avoid the fact that to him, though not to his parents or sister, his dead granny, awesomely voiced by Elaine Stritch, is always chilling in his living room.

How different this film is from all the rest of films aimed at the same audience is just amazing. No stupid numbers choreographed to the latest hit pop single, no stupid scatological humor, no super-obvious reference to pop culture, no generic traits; this film has a voice of its own, and is really all the better for it. Plus, like I keep saying, you just have to love this one for embracing the spooky stuff. By the time the dead have risen, the directors don’t shy away from giving us images that can get to be quite scary, and I love that, it makes the film so much better because it means it’s being honest about itself.

The story this film tells is fantastic, it’s heartfelt and it has a lot to say that will appeal to adults more than it will to kids. Plus, it’s fantastic because it allows the filmmakers to give us some of the most visually dazzling images seen on film this year, with terrific characters, a score by Jon Brion that’s unbelievably good, and some direction from Sam Fell and Chris Butler that’s obviously reverential towards some horror classics but that at the same times puts a fresher spin on things and makes it their own.

Most importantly, ParaNorman more than proves that Coraline was no fluke, that this studio has the goods and that you should damn well be paying attention that what they have to offer. The scares work, it has some jokes in it that are amongst the funniest of the year, the story is just super engrossing, and you’ll spend half the time just being stunned by the great detail of the work of these geniuses. Laika’s here to stay people, and they already have a project lined up for 2014, so at least the wait for that one won’t be as long.

Grade: A-


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