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Julian’s Rating: 8.5/10
Player Affinity Composite Rating: 8.5/10
(3 reviews total)
ParaNorman begins as Norman watches a schlocky zombie film on television, its schlock accentuated by its untalented and obviously uncaring actress. This faux-intro gives Chris Butler and Sam Fell’s stop-motion feature a manner in which to set up a tone for the film and lampoon it at the same time. When our title character talks with his grandmother about what’s happening on the television, we think nothing of it. It’s only when he goes into the kitchen and talks with his family that we realize that his grandmother’s dead.
We also subsequently realize that Norman isn’t quite normal. No, he’s not crazy, but he can talk with the dead. And he’s made his gift known to his family: His father, Perry, just wants him to be a normal boy. His mother, Sandra, can’t relate to Norman though she really wants to get through to him. Meanwhile, his sister, Courtney, is just too caught up in her own vapid life to care.
Considering its heritage of killing witches, Norman’s home town in Blithe Hollow provides no safe haven either unless you count the ghosts that Norman greets on his way to school. The only living person in Norman’s community who seems to actually care about him at all is Neil, a tubby kid whose lack of intelligence is shown when he suggests that he and Norman should be alone … together.
Without being pretentious, the film’s introduction invites us into Norman’s normalness before being introduced to the norms of those around him. It also expertly sets the tone for the film: we know that Norman’s quest to stop a curse from destroying his community – along with some unexpected allies – will end with these differences being resolved and with the idea of normalcy as a whole being less important to the community than it once was.
Before the conflict regarding a zombie invasion is even presented, this glimpse into Norman’s everyday life showcases that we will see our underdog protagonist rising against the odds and prove that everyone else was wrong about him. Yes, we expect a happy ending, and yes, ParaNorman does fit into the cinematic traditions of the misunderstood hero and the underdog, but traditionalism in cinema is only a bad thing when it dips into clichés. This film steers clear of clichés through its mixing of such conventions with horror and light dashes of comedy.
The horror genre predictably gets lots of representation in ParaNorman. Such references include the zombie invasion trope, the horror paraphernalia that fills Norman’s room, and a meshed-together joke that incorporates both Halloween and Friday the 13th. Horror references are often tired and monotonous, but here they mostly work as an endearing compliment to the film’s plot and characters. The mixture of so many different kinds of characters helps give ParaNorman lots of humorous life where it might otherwise feel dead (no pun intended), and much of it is thanks to the impressive voice cast.
Kodi Smit-McPhee capably leads as Norman, with a somber tone that isn’t quite depressed or depressing; Jeff Garlin gives Perry an expected gruffness without reducing the character to an embarrassing stereotype; Leslie Mann portrays Sandra in such a way that she comes across as a genuinely loving mother instead of the stock role it easily could have been; Tucker Albrizzi provides Neil with some much-needed positive gusto that balances out the film’s dark tones; Anna Kendrick appropriately voices the superficial Courtney in a way that one could mistake her for Clueless’ Cher, while Casey Affleck goes dude-bro on us as Neil’s macho brother, Mitch. Lastly, though she gets little to do, Elaine Stritch is heartwarming as Norman’s grandmother.
Still, some of ParaNorman’s humor is problematic mostly because it doesn’t fit with the somber and dark nature of the other jokes. There are one too many expected zombie-centric gags, and a joke about Neil’s “pectorals” feels heavily out of place, but the comedy works more often than it doesn’t work, even if some of it is simply too broad to fit with the rest of the film. It’s even arguable that the character Alvin, as good as Christopher Mintz-Plasse does with voicing him, is a bit superfluous and could have been left on the editing room floor.
Through horror film conventions and a generally humorous tone, ParaNorman explores the relationship between the accepted and the outsider. In more ways than one, it’s the outsider who has the answers in this fantasy tale that does so many things right and only a few things wrong. While it might not win over some, ParaNorman is all the better for its defiance to what we’re used to in mainstream animation. It’s occasionally on-the-nose about its message of tolerance, acceptance, and forgiveness, but it remains poignant in this mostly enchanting tale.
Simon thought: “With the lovely stop-motion efforts Corpse Bride and Coraline to their name, animation house Laika has outdone themselves with ParaNorman, a stunningly rendered horror parable with fun frights, spot-on voice work and a tragically melancholy climax capable of simultaneously bringing a smile and a tear. Although stop-motion carries a similar look across the board at a baser level, ParaNorman is utterly distinct with its obtuse angles and distorted dimensions. For a slightly more mature audience there are plenty of laughs and genre in-jokes to be found not to mention a healthy does of black humor strictly for adults. Brisk and mesmerizing, ParaNorman is by far the best animated film of the year.” Rating: 8.5/10
Ethan thought: “Laika’s latest is an absolute gem and one of the most pleasant surprises of the year. Hidden under clever horror genre trappings, ParaNorman is an unexpectedly poignant story about how fear and bullying can feed off each other. Norman, the peculiar but lovable hero, is a wonderful character for kids to see: he’s smart, brave in a begrudging, shy fashion, and ultimately accepting of his own eccentricities. But the film doesn’t bash viewers over the head with its message – it’s quite content to wrap it all up in an energetic plot and some wicked humor. This makes it all the more affecting when ParaNorman goes straight for your emotions in a spellbinding climax that showcases Laika’s stunning animation. Easily the best animated film of the year so far.” Rating: 8.5/10