Norman Babcock (voiced by Kodi Smit-McPhee) has all the appearances of your average normal grade school child, except for his ability to commune with the dead that is. His home town of Blithe Hollow was cursed by an evil witch over 300 years ago and it has befallen upon Norman to fulfill the prophecy and protect his family and friends from the oncoming assault by the undead before they are resurrected and set loose on the hapless victims and residents of Blithe.
Along with some help from his friend Neil (voiced by Tucker Albrizzi), the local school bully Alvin (voiced by Christopher Mintz-Plasse), his sister Courtney (voiced by Anna Kendrick) and Neil’s muscle bound older brother Mitch (voiced by Casey Affleck) they must put an end to this curse before it is too late.
Stop motion animation is one of the very few old school art styles that still sees wide theatrical releases. It is strange to think how this form of animation has seemingly outlasted even the more traditional and popular 2-D animated arts in terms of production. Very few 2-D films ever make it to the big screen anymore but somehow we are still graced with the beautiful art form of classic stop motion animation every couple of years thanks to studios such as Laika and Aardman. “ParaNorman” carries on that fine tradition of top notch animation mixed with a familiar story and a welcoming family friendly horror atmosphere.
Say what you will about 3-D computer generated animated films, they will never come close to that tactile feel and personal touch that stop motion animation adds. Hand constructed and painstakingly posed for each frame of animation, the look of “ParaNorman” and other films of its type is without a doubt its biggest attraction and selling point. The animation style not only looks fantastic but for the first time in a long time it actually benefits the story being told.
Presented in a fashion akin to those old grindhouse films of the late 70’s, directors Chris Butler and Sam Fell have successfully captured the look and fell of those cheeseball horror classics. Not that the film is some sort of spoof or direct recreation of those works (thank goodness), “ParaNorman” is more like a children’s story version of those scary movies we horror geeks would stay up late to catch on cable television while our parents were fast asleep.
Starting off with a perfect intro to this ghoulish little fable, the film dives head first into territory hardly ever covered in the family film realm, the horror genre. Don’t let that dissuade you though since this is best described as horror-lite. The film has more of a creepy atmosphere than anything else, with mysterious strangers staring from afar, dusty old houses, graveyards and plenty of ghosts. Anyone fearful of the tricky balancing act the film had to pull off will be glad to know it does both the little audience members and the grown up ones justice by never being too scary but still having fun with the genre cliches.
The unfortunate part though is that for all the bells and whistles that “ParaNorman” gets right, it kind of stumbles on the follow through a bit. What starts out as a fun little horror tale eventually turns into a more conventional story about secrets behind the curse instead of a focus on the monstrous delights at hand. This is going to be a highly debatable issue though since the turn the film takes near the end isn’t really bad, but it just wasn’t nearly as much fun as everything that came before it. Even sadder than that is the early stuff just barely scratched the surface of its potential before the brakes were hit and we were sent spiraling into this other story arc.
Without a doubt though the single saving grace of the film is its animation style and how well it complements its chosen genre. The tactile feel of the characters and the world they inhabit sets the mood well as does the sparse but appropriate soundtrack. The visuals, along with a wide range of character designs that all seem wildly inconsistent yet strangely compatible with one another, help sell this very familiar story and its very familiar conceits. Most will likely lavish over the impeccable attention to detail of the art style and easily either forgive or forget the other parts that aren’t quite as fresh.
There really isn’t much more to say about “ParaNorman”, it works as both a kid friendly homage to horror films and as a fun adventure for the whole family that gets a lot of mileage out of its format. It has just enough of an edge to it to keep the adults interested and enough visual diversity to keep youngsters engaged. While the sometimes slow plotting and lack of focus may keep it from earning the high accolades it could have gotten, it still stands tall as yet another fine example as to the power of stop motion animation and as one of the better family films to be released this year.