ParaNorman (2012)

From the very first scene, ParaNorman invites comparisons not to Coraline (2009), the previous feature film by fledgling stop-motion studio Laika, but to Brad Bird’s The Iron Giant (1999). Both feature as protagonist a young boy with outsider status who is obsessed with horror films (an exaggerated example of which is shown early on) and related paraphernalia, and whose real life is invaded by creatures that belong to pulp fiction more than to the real world. For Hogarth from the older film it’s a giant alien robot; for the eponymous Norman, it’s ghosts only he can see and talk to, and, later, zombies. Even the small-town New England setting is similar: ParaNorman takes place in the fictional Blithe Hollow, modeled after Salem, MA, in that its claim to fame is a witch trial from 300 years ago and that it seems to consist mainly of tourist traps.

The comparison is admittedly rather unfair; Giant is a practically perfect masterpiece few films can hope to compete with. But ParaNorman also calls to mind Chicken Little (2005), both in concept and in execution: Said Disney film centres around a weird kid who is ostracised by his town because of his claims that the sky is about to fall and whose father is disappointed in his lack of normalcy. Reconciliation with peers and dad follows only after it is revealed that the chicken was right all along. It is not a very good movie in part due to the really tired father/son dynamic and cliché-ridden, obvious plot. The pace is also far too frantic, most of the gags simply fall flat and the animation (Disney’s first try at full CGI) is lame.

ParaNorman‘s plot and character arc is quite similar: In addition to his Sixth-Sense powers, he starts to receive flashes from the past when the anniversary of the witch’s death draws near. It turns out that the witch really did have supernatural powers, and a curse put upon the town raises the dead from their graves, with Norman the only one to stop it. Neither the townspeople nor his parents believe him, naturally, and his father is especially adamant that he stop being so weird.

Like Chicken, the film has to contend with a certain familiarity regarding this particular type of plot, though at least here it’s tempered by the fact that many of the clichés that also occur in the movie are (often subverted) references to horror classics. It also has pacing problems: it lags in the first act and crams too much too quickly into the second. Additionally, its dialogue is often very on-the-nose, spelling out its anti-bullying, pro-forgiveness message several times with a complete lack of subtlety.

That’s unfortunate because the creators found an organic way to drive their message home that renders the Cliff’s Notes dialogue unnecessary: The way the past is echoed in the present makes very clear not only that it’s bad to judge and punish people just because they don’t seem to fit in, but also that it’s not very hard to fall into a collective us-vs.-them mindset and that judging “the mob” too quickly is also too easy. Also, bullying begets more bullying: sometimes, people break bad because that is how they are perceived by others, and victims can quickly turn into perpetrators. On a related note, it’s also neat that there’s a gay character in the movie who is a) not a model of tolerance himself and b) not defined by his sexuality.

I imagine the filmmakers wanted there to be no confusion on the part of children in the audience, but a non-verbal clarification would have been less jarring (perhaps a small subplot involving Norman and Alvin, his main bully in school, neither of whom really change during the movie).

Another aspect in which the film slightly misses its target is cohesion. Tonally, it’s all over the place: from family drama to horror film parody to broad humour to straight horror and back again. The different tones never quite manage to mesh successfully, which leads to some jokes landing with a thud and some ostensibly serious moments lacking the desired gravitas. Now, on the whole, the film does manage to entertain, and there are both genuinely creepy moments as well as some very funny gags (often visual or physical). I just wish the integration would have worked better. (That said, the funniest sustained scene is also clearly the most transgressive, and that’s saying something in a movie full of dead people.)

Plot-wise, there are enough twists to keep the film from feeling too formulaic. But it’s a little weird that a kid who can ask ghosts for advice (which, it has been established, are everywhere in town) doesn’t really make use of that talent after the first act and has to figure out on his own how to stop the apparent zombie onslaught.

The animation is technically masterful, though there was some “cheating” involved. On occasion, there seems to be a slight disconnect between facial movement, body movement and the voices, and I wonder if that’s a result of CG animating and colour-printing so many mouth shapes for the puppets. It’s like I expect the match-up to not be exact, and with every other part of the body it isn’t, but the mouths are much closer, and then that’s weirdly distracting. Some elements are also completely computer-animated (like many effects and most of the floating ghosts), and while you often can’t tell from the animation itself, that’s a sign of a different problem: it looks almost too smooth, too perfect. One might ask what the point of stop-motion is when you already use computers to touch up practically every shot and have to animate mouths separately anyway. On the other hand, in many scenes you really do feel the realness of the puppets and props. I found this especially true when the characters were not (significantly) in motion. It adds weight to what the characters are doing on screen and in a subconscious way I think it makes the on-their-face unappealing character designs more palatable.

In the end, Paranorman isn’t anywhere close to The Iron Giant; it has too many faults and not enough ambition (for instance, the creators seem to have nothing to say about loss and grief despite some of the dead being from Norman’s family). But it’s also much better than Chicken Little despite telling a somewhat similar story within the confines of a horror comedy instead of a science-fiction comedy. I’m looking forward to Laika’s third feature to see if they’ll go three for three.


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