Monday, August 27, 2012

Movie Review: ParaNorman

With the resurgence of stop-motion animation we are seeing a new age of family entertainment where both stop-motion and computer generated animation merge into a new wonderful film experience! In the tradition of Tim Burton's The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993), Focus Features and Laika Studios present us with ParaNorman, a hysterically chilling story about how being different and special may not always be an easy thing to live with.
Take Norman Babcck (Kodi Smit-McPhee), a seemingly normal middle-school student who is obsessed with horror/zombie movies. Aside from being socially awkward and a misunderstood misfit, Norman has the ability to speak to ghosts, and of course...nobody believes him. Norman lives in Blithe Hollow, Massachusetts, a small town very similar to Salem, Massachusetts. And like Salem, Blithe Hollow also has a colorful, yet cursed history.
300 years ago, Agatha Pendergast (Jodelle Ferland) was accused of witchcraft and sentenced to death by seven of her fellow villagers including Judge Hopkins (Bernard Hill). Still today, the whole town is witch crazy with witch themed tourist attractions and a solid-bronze statue of a caricature of the Blithe Hollow Witch herself! Even Norman's school, Blithe Hollow Middle School is putting on a play called "The Witch's Curse" to mark the anniversary of the witch's death. While Norman tries to lead a normal life despite constant tormenting by a bully named Alvin (Christopher Mintz-Plasse), he has only one friend, the peculiar and chubby Neil Down (Tucker Albrizzi).
While Norman's family life is no different: his father Perry Babcock (Jeff Garlin) doesn't understand him, his mother Sandra Babcock (Leslie Mann) tries to ignore his eccentricities, and as for his older sister Courtney (Anna Kendrick), who thinks he's a freak! The only relatives who really understand him are his grandmother (Elaine Stritch) who is of course dead and an estranged and "crazy" uncle, Mr. Pendergast (John Goodman). On his way home from school, he encounters his supposedly crazy uncle who tells him that he also sees the dead and tells Norman he must perform a ritual with a special book at the witch's grave by sundown or the dead will rise from the grave. Although Norman is sceptical at first, he finds the book and the graves of the witch's seven accusers, but something goes wrong and they rise from their graves as zombies. As the witch's curse is about to come true Norman, along with a group of unlikely allies including Courtney, Alvin, Neil, and his muscular brother Mitch (Casey Affleck) must find away to end the curse and send the zombies back to the grave!
ParaNorman comes from the same animation studio who brought us the adaptation of Neil Gaiman's Coraline (2009), directed by Henry Selick. With highly detailed stop-motion animation combined with computer animation, ParaNorman, like Coraline is both visually stunning and has an entertaining story with an element of horror. Although highly original, ParaNorman can be compared to The Sixth Sense (1999) meets The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993). The character of Norman especially, reminds me of Haley Joel Osment in The Sixth Sense, although less tragic as Norman has come to terms with his "gift" as he often makes frequent pleasant conversations with the multitude of apparitions who inhabit his town, including his grandmother who sits on the couch and knits as if she were still alive.
Directors Chris Butler and Sam Fell have a great deal of experience in both stop-motion and computer animation as writer/director Chris Butler worked on Coraline and Tim Burton's Corpse Bride (2005) as Sam Fell was the director of Flushed Away (2006) and The Tale of Despereaux (2008). I found ParaNorman to be delightfully entertaining and "relateable", particularly with the themes of being different and bullying which resonate heavily with the increasing problem in our schools today. As a fan of zombie movies I was surprised to see zombies along with references to death, ghosts, the occult and witchcraft/black magic included heavily in a PG rated family movie, as zombies have become more accepted in mainstream entertainment with AMC's The Walking Dead. Also there is quite a lot of adult-related humor in the movie which separates it from the typical animated "family movie" which is a refreshing change. While I feel that this may not do as well as I hoped in the theaters, this would have probably done better if it was released closer to Halloween like the new Tim Burton's .
The most fascinating aspect to this movie is the setting of Blithe Hollow, Massachusetts, as I said before, being so similar to Salem, Massachusetts in many ways. For anyone who has ever been to Salem as I have, you will understand the similarities in how Salem is so mired in the tragic events that occurred during the Salem Witch Trials in 1692, (which happens to be of personal interest to me) in which twenty people were accused of witchcraft and sentenced to death. The whole city is literally obsessed with witches as it has become a haven for the Wiccan population and is always a popular location during Halloween. The city was even dubbed "Witch City" and proudly displays the witch logo on everything from local shops and even on their police cars, they even have life-size bronze statue of Samantha (Elizabeth Montgomery) from the 1960s TV show "Bewitched"! (If you ever visit Salem, be sure to check out the Salem Witch Museum for a truly enlightening experience on the whole history of the event.) Like Salem, Blithe Hollow is also "witch crazy" and the population is perfectly content in continuing to perpetrate the lies and misinformation of myth and legend in order to cater to the tourist trade.
ParaNorman is a highly entertaining and visually stunning animated film, with an impressive and socially relevant subtext. If you enjoyed The Nightmare Before Christmas or Coraline, then you are in for a frighteningly fun experience! See it now before it returns to the grave!