Chris Butler, Sam Fell
Kodi Smit-McPhee, Tucker Albrizzi, Anna Kendrick, Casey Affleck, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Leslie Mann, Jeff Garlin, Elaine Stritch, Bernard Hill, Jodelle Ferland, Tempestt Bledsoe, Alex Borstein, John Goodman
PG for scary action and images, thematic elements, some rude humor and language
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An ancient curse and a decades-long struggle to protect a small New England community fall in the lap of a young boy who can see and speak with dead people. ParaNorman is a cute, endearing children's film about perception, acceptance and the undead.
Massachusetts has a long history with witchcraft. Home to the legendary trials in Salem, the rich colonial history of the state forms the basis of a gimmicky, but successful premise. The stop-motion animated feature stars the voice of Kodi Smit-McPhee (Let Me In) as Norman Babcock, a gangly, horror-loving grade schooler whose bizarre behavior leads to ostracization and ridicule. No one believes him, but Norman can talk to the dead who roam the earth as ghosts.
From long-departed aviators dangling from trees to severed pooches looking for affection, Norman can see them all. His gift gives him pleasure, but the constant battle with his peers and parents leave him frequently drained. His ghostly grandmother, voiced exquisitely by Elaine Stritch, coaches him in life's many lessons. However, it's the sudden appearance of his crazy uncle that begins his slow shift from meek outcast to town savior.
Taking turns creating vivid and compelling are the likes of Anna Kendrick, Casey Affleck, Leslie Mann and Tucker Albrizzi. Chris Butler's fanciful script assigns expected stereotypes to each character, but gives each an interesting tweak that plays out at intervals. Albrizzi's jovial, not-so-bright Neil makes a fitting best friend-in-waiting, stumbling expectedly through humorous scenes, but providing useful guidance to our hero. Norman's vacuous, cheerleading older sister is given life by Kendrick who plays up the selfish, boy-gazing tropes of popular high school girls fawning over Neil's studly older brother Mitche, an equally inventive and unrecognizable Affleck, whose clever, though cheesy, twist is best kept until the film's last scenes.
Butler and co-director Sam Fell do an excellent job breathing life into quirky characters, keeping the potentially corny plot from descending into anarchy. Reminiscent of Laika's prior 3D stop-motion animated film Coraline, ParaNorman has a generous visual feel that easily differentiates it from the more frequent computer-generated animted films against which it competes. The medium is far more inventive and ripe with possibilities, but isn't as simple as connecting ones and zeroes. Butler and Fell employ a relatively new technology of 3D printing to generate the various facial expressions of the characters in the film, enabling a faster transition from model creation to filming. It takes a bit of the work out of the plasticine model-making employed by Aardman animation, but the results are equally impressive.
With recent emphasis on anti-bullying campaigns around the country, a film like ParaNorman exemplifies how social misfits can often turn their unusual qualities into successful affectations. Norman's quiet, contemplative nature benefits him greatly, largely escaping notice and enabling him to work out more complex issues. While happenstance plays a small part in his success, his own courage and tenacity supports the film's end goal.
The tendency in this kind of animated film is to focus on broader concepts that more easily speak to younger children. ParaNorman exemplifies the use of this execution for a universal approach to storytelling. Adults might not be as inwardly engaged with the goings-on here as they might in a film from Pixar, but there's sufficient wit and originality to draw them in long enough to enjoy hours of replay with their children.
March 7, 2013