Movie Review: ParaNorman

Norman of "ParaNorman"

By Kimberly Gadette (doddleNEWS)

Norman’s got a lot riding on his underdeveloped, 11-year-old shoulders in ParaNorman, the second 3D stop-motion animated feature from Laika. Following 2009′s Coraline – a strong success with both the critics and the box office – it seemed that the stop-motion studio Laika, based in a suburb west of Portland, Oregon, was carving a highly unique niche for itself. But when Coraline‘s writer/director stop-motion whiz Henry Selick left the studio eight months after the film’s release (in October 2009), future projects seemed questionable … at least until May 2011, when Laika officially announced its plans for ParaNorman.

And speaking of the “Para” title character: Norman (voiced by Kodi Smit-McPhee) lives with his family in the small Massachusetts town of Blithe Hollow, which is about to commemorate the 300-year anniversary of the burning of the historic town witch. Norman’s a good-hearted, awkward tween who sports spiked hair and thick eyebrows that look to be molded out of chocolate licorice. He’s more off-kilter than most, particularly since he’s more comfortable conversing with dead people than his family or his school mates. His abnormal paranormal Uncle Prenderghast (voiced by John Goodman) warns him that Blithe Hollow’s rumored witch’s curse is true… and that it will be up to Norman to bridge the communications between this world and the other, in the hopes that he can calm the witch, stop the curse and save the town. If only zombies could stay off the streets, Norman’s task would be a whole lot easier.

Like Coraline, ParaNorman is a PG-rated children’s fantasy/horror film. But unlike the former — which was based on Neil Gaiman’s blisteringly creative 2002 award-winning novella – this time around Laika chose to go with a screenplay written by in-house storyboard supervisor Chris Butler. Whether or not Mr. Butler proves himself to be an enduring talent … this first screenplay ultimately disappoints.

And yet, the opening act is packed with eye-filling treats. We see the town as others might, with Norman nodding and talking to thin air. Then the camera revolves, and we’re transported into Norman’s point-of-view … where phosphorescent beings crowd his world, hovering in various modes of dress, manner and speech. There are humorous bits such as Grandma haunting the couch, Norman’s love of all horror props, posters and toys, and the tangible squish when he climbs on to the stomach of a large dead man. The filmmakers beautifully depict the fabric of time disintegrating from today to a 300-year-old past and, most impressive, create an ingeniously clever toilet stall scene which — per the production notes — took one year to shoot.

The Babcock Family

The characters are deliciously drawn (face, anatomy, clothes), and Laika’s stop-motion techniques continue to push the industry ever-forward. Such as the fact that due to Laika’s “Rapid Prototyping,” millions of character facial expressions can now be created and printed on 3D printers, ultimately employing a far more nuanced animation. Quoting Creative Supervisor of Replacement Animation & Engineering Brian McLean, “While Coraline Jones had well over 200,000 potential facial expressions, Norman Babcock has 1.5 million – allowing for a seemingly limitless variety of smiles, frowns, winces, and screams.”

But as wonderful as it is that the characters’ facial structures can be manipulated to the umpteenth degree, those characters still need to exist within a compelling story. After the entertaining set-ups, a great portion of the movie’s second half is engaged in chase sequences, usually involving zombies chasing the rag-tag group of unwilling heroes: Norman, his tubby faithful friend Neil (Tucker Albrizzi), his snotty older sister Courtney (Anna Kendrick), the middle school bully-turned-coward Alvin (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) and muscle-bound, IQ-lightweight Mitch (Casey Affleck).

For all the zombies’ continual lurching attack mode, when the leader finally speaks, he claims that his ghoulish gang has no intention of hurting anyone. Which would seem as nonsensical to adults as much as kids, considering all the zombies’ previous actions. As for the third act visuals that are ramped up to an overheated hoo-ha, when the smoke finally clears, we’re left with a climax that flames out.

“It’s not fair,” Norman’s whiny teenage sister might decry. Compared to Coraline’s wild plot, outré characters (the captivating Russian acrobat Mr. Bobinsky, the histrionic Misses Spink and Forcible, their wacky Scotties), the frightening button eyes or the amazing set pieces such as the cotton candy-esque tunnel traversing Coraline’s two worlds … ParaNorman would have had to muster up some fairly hefty witchcraft to avoid a sophomore slump.

Ah, magic … sometimes it’s there, sometimes it’s not. Here’s hoping for more Laika alchemy in the near future.

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Rating on a scale of 5 average mediums: 2.5

Release date: August 17, 2012
Directed by: Chris Butler and Sam Fell
Written by: Chris Butler
Cast: Kodi Smit-McPhee, Tucker Albrizzi, Anna Kendrick, Casey Affleck, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Leslie Mann, Jeff Garlin, Elaine Stritch, Tempestt Bledsoe, Alex Borstein, John Goodman
Rating: PG
Running Time: 93 minutes

About Kimberly Gadette

Film critic Kimberly Gadette, born and raised in movie-centric L.A., believes celluloid may very well be a part of her DNA. Having received her BA and MFA from UCLA's School of Theater, Film & Television, she spent many of her formative years as an actress (film, tv, commercials, stage) before she literally changed perspective, finding a whole new POV from the other side of the camera. You can find her last 450+ reviews on Rotten Tomatoes (www.rottentomatoes.com/critic/kimberly-gadette/). Other than taking the occasional side trip to Cannes or Sundance, you can find her at the movies ... sitting in the dark as usual.

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