Be very careful about forming any preconceived thoughts on ParaNorman before seeing it; and even, at that, while seeing it. The company that fashioned the lushly-animated and darkly-told Coraline, LAIKA, returns with a film that is equally visually arresting, and one that will often surprise your senses and constantly challenge your expectations, as an adult and a child.
Norman, our spiky-haired, dewy-eyed, and genuine optimistic teenage zombie-lover has just about the same problems as other teens—except for that his ability to see and communicate with dead people has his friends and family wary of his mental stability.
Finding a friend in a similarly teased student, the portly and fearless, if not particularly bright, red-headed Neil, Norman soon learns of a troublesome curse laid upon his town, a curse that he is uniquely, and apparently innately, suited to fight.
What unravels is a story of Norman’s quest to convince others that something in their eerie New England town is about to go terribly wrong one stormy night, and those random souls that are directly or indirectly involved in his plight. There is the cheerleader older sister, her dim-witted jock of a love interest who is also Neil’s older brother, a sickly-looking bully, and of course, zombies.
From pencils stuck in the ceiling of the boys bathroom at school to random books shelved in a dusty house, with zombie posters, plants, painted toenails and everything else in between, there is a world created far more believable and engaging than other animated movies. Even with characters drawn in almost absurdist proportions, there is an instant realism to a world that is made of stop-motion animation and in stereoscopic 3D (the film is truly a reason for the continued use of 3D). Wonderfully coloured, ParaNorman is clearly crafted with care and attention to detail, making the mundane magical and the ordinary just a charming bit of odd.
A collection of dulcet voices, from parents Jeff Garlin and Leslie Mann, to a crazed uncle in John Goodman, the older sister in Anna Kendrick, and a bully done by Christopher Mintz-Plasse (McLovin) make the film easy on the eyes as well as the ears. It’s what is behind and in between that may be tested.
This is not a Disney-Pixar joint to be sure –the jokes do not at once appeal to both children and adults, but instead oscillate. Norman’s ringtone plays the theme from Halloween, something that only the bravest of youngster would know. Meanwhile, a few teenagers may be too familiar with the sight of Neil at home gazing upon an aerobics video, something parents may not be too keen on.
The allusions and gags go further, often subverting common conventions and attitudes, especially towards a dramatic finale in which good and evil become relative terms. It is not afraid to reference sex or the grotesque while focusing on death and the trappings of rapid judgment and assumptions. Norman himself is weird, but as the exaggerated shapes and colours of the other animated characters would suggest, as well as their habits and beliefs, nobody really is.
It should be an October release instead of getting dumped in August, but in this piece of kid fiction, children’s horror, and adult guide to life, there is a clear message that you best not jump to prejudice too soon. The film has heart and soul, even if some of the characters don’t, as the dead rise from the ground and other questionable people roam around above it, with Norman standing amid it all.