Following on from the success of Coraline, Laika Studios have released an original film directed by Chris Butler and Sam Fell entitled ParaNorman. Using the same stop-motion methods of its predecessor, ParaNorman is a pastiche, satire and homage to 1960s horror films and the John Hughes films of the 1980s. Originally pitched to Disney as an idea, it was eventually created by Laika and it is the first stop-motion movie to use a 3D color printer to create character faces.
Norman (Kodi Smit-McPhee) is a lonely young boy who has trouble fitting in at school. He finds solace in horror films watched with his grandma, which would be fine, except his grandma died years before. Norman has the ability to see and communicate with ghosts, which has caused his family exasperation and ridicule. Then one day, his Uncle Mr. Prenderghast (John Goodman) tells him that he has to take over as the one chosen to subdue the witches curse and prevent the dead rising from their graves.
ParaNorman, which clearly sets out to create a scary horror film for kids, succeeds in the most part. The script and pacing is tight without being too brief and the voice cast on the whole are excellent. Its real strength is in the minute details, which give each individual scene its own sense of creation and passion, creating a sense of wonder and discovery. Whether it's the sly wordplay between Norman's friend Neil, his jock brother Mitch (Casey Affleck), sister Courtney (Anna Kendrick) or the variety of ghosts and zombies inhabiting each frame, ParaNorman is at its best when it plays the action for laughs or scares. In fact ParaNorman's whole posse of misfits provide most of the films most entertaining moments, and there are plenty of references for adults to enjoy while the kids are being scared out of their wits.
Where ParaNorman has more trouble is the confusing morale messages in the second act. After the superb opening act, the film-makers seem intent on referencing as many classic horror films as possible, this leads to a confusing see-saw of feeling toward the action, notably the zombies. The shuffling undead are, on the whole, are played for laughs, but are then shunted into a 'Frankenstein' style sub-plot where they're actually the victims. But, not really, because of their past atrocities that lead them to be cursed, but they are, because they're victims of bullying. This back and forth continues for the majority of the second half and reduces the wonderful sense of threat and terror created in the first half. It seems ParaNorman gets confused on the point it's trying to make.
Released in a time when Disney and Pixar are struggling to keep up to the high standards set by themselves and Dreamworks films like How to Train Your Dragon reducing the gap in quality, ParaNorman provides enough laughs and truly scary moments to make this a more than worthy entry in animated film history. It's the best animated film of the year thus far, even if it sometimes struggles to marry the John Hughes riff with the classic horror pastiche.
Rating: * * * *
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