Sunday, August 19, 2012

ParaNorman / *** (PG)

Featuring the voices of:
Norman Babcock: Kodi Smit-McPhee
Neil: Tucker Albrizzi
Courtney Babcock: Anna Kendrick
Mitch: Casey Affleck
Alvin: Christopher Mintz-Plasse
Sandra Babcock: Leslie Mann
Perry Babcock: Jeff Garlin
Grandma: Elaine Stritch
The Judge: Bernard Hill
Aggie: Jodell Ferland
Sherriff Hooper: Tempestt Bledsoe
Mrs. Henscher: Alex Borstein
Mr. Prenderghast: John Goodman

Focus Features presents a film directed by Chris Butler and Sam Fell. Written by Butler. Running time: 93 min. Rated PG (for scary action and images, thematic elements, some rude humor and language).

Never in the history of the world has mankind been more prepared for the impending zombie apocalypse than it is today. We’ve got zombies on the brain. Perhaps we’re just overly concerned that they’ll get our brains. Whatever the reason, we are more knowledgeable about zombies than we’ve ever been. We watch movies about them. We watch TV shows about them. We read books and comics about them. Heck, I even contribute reviews to Zombie Apocalypse Monthly, an e-zine dedicated to them. Even our children are becoming experts, as evidenced by the new animated film “ParaNorman”.

Norman is a kid, like so many movie kids, who is picked on because he’s different. Norman’s social ailment? He talks to dead people, and the whole town seems to know it. Perhaps that’s because he freely talks to ghosts as he walks to school everyday, so everyone can see him walking down the streets talking to the thin air. His obsession with zombie paraphernalia probably doesn’t help his social standing.

Besides his social awkwardness, Norman must also cope with a family that doesn’t believe his claims that his dead Grandma still occupies their house. They don’t really listen to much of what Norman has to say about anything. They don’t really listen to anything anybody else in the family says either, for that matter. In fact, that quality seems to permeate the entire community of Blithe Hollow. Of course, when a centuries old curse raises the dead on the eve of the 300th anniversary of the town’s trial and persecution of a suspected witch, everyone seems to have watched enough movies to know how to dispatch with a zombie. “Kill ‘em in the head!” someone cries in the mayhem created more by the pitchfork-wielding citizens than by the zombies.

“ParaNorman” is a tribute to a childhood obsession with horror movies by the animation studio responsible for the creepy movie “Coraline”. “ParaNorman” is a much more traditional and innocent movie than that one. Yes, the dead do walk the Earth in this movie, but they’re more funny than scary. Beyond that, directors Sam Fell and Chris Butler lovingly reproduce a childhood take on what horror is about with some scary images, but an even stronger emphasis on atmosphere. They even start the whole movie with a 70’s style B-movie intro, ala Quentin Tarantino’s “Grindhouse” productions.

Nelson Lowery’s production design is perfect for the trick or treating set, capturing that fall feel with a broad pallet of autumn colors and an even measure of blues and greens to evoke that classic horror monster feel.  The stop motion animation is intricately detailed with some life-like properties that add to the audience’s immersion in Norman’s world. The ears of the characters have a realistic translucence to them, and the CGI effects used for the witch’s magic blends wonderfully with the physical feel produced by stop motion.

I liked how Butler’s script doesn’t rush the characters through conclusions to get to the action and the jokes. Norman is dealing with issues all kids usually face in school. There are bullies and teachers working toward their own agendas instead of the student’s. Norman befriends a fellow outcast in Neil. Neil is weight challenged, although the movie doesn’t tip toe around that issue and has the bully simply refer to him as “Fatty.” Neil’s outlook is a wonderful lesson for kids with similar problems. He’s a great positive role model who argues that it simply doesn’t matter what other people feel, it’s your own attitude that counts.

The movie is very smart in observing general society. It comments on the sheep mentality that leads so many of our adult decisions. Nobody tries to understand what is going on when the dead start to rise, they merely react with the mob mentality lead by the lowest common denominators. It makes me think of American politics. The lesson Norman learns and must impress upon others is that fear is always the wrong emotion to respond to. Many of our choices are based on fear, but stepping back and examining a problem is the only way toward achieving a real solution.

It’s reassuring to see a family film that tackles real problems through its fantasy elements. I suppose that is not so rare these days as the sure and precise way in which the filmmakers approach this lesson. The patient pace of the film also allows the audience to fully relish the filmmakers’ beautiful production design and attention to details obviously inspired by their own childhood experiences with horror. I would’ve appreciated it more if the film had been released a little closer to Halloween, but that probably won’t bother the kids. They’ll go home after this one and pull out their costume magazines to start prepping for their trick or treating to come.

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