“ParaNorman” is without a doubt the weirdest, most out there movie I’ve seen so far in 2012, but its uniqueness helps to make it one of the more genre-challenging films in several years.
This is second stop-motion 3D animated film from LAIKA, the animation company responsible for the 2010 Oscar-nominated “Coraline” and with “ParaNorman,” LAKIA is showing it’s a force on the animated front. In high school terms, Pixar would be the quarterback of the dynasty football team and LAKIA is the gothic, quieter student that’s become comfortable sharing their creativity for all to see.
In this outing headed by co-directors Sam Fell and Chris Butler (Butler doubles up and handles the script as well), we’re introduced to Norman, (Kodi Smit-McPhee, “The Road”) a child who has a slightly unhealthy fascination with zombies. He’s got any kind of zombie paraphernalia you can name — from zombie slippers to a zombie alarm clock — which unnerves his parents and older sister, Courtney (Anna Kendrick, “The Twilight Saga”) nearly as much as his claims that he talks to his dead grandmother.
Norman isn’t actually attention-starved though and really is able to see and speak with the dead, a special gift that’s made him an outcast to most of his classmates save Neil (Tucker Albrizzi), the likable fat kid who has an enduring optimistic attitude similar to the “Diary of a Wimpy Kid’s” Rowley. He’s cheerful no matter the circumstances and isn’t afraid to play Sam to Norman’s Frodo.
Norman learns that his ability gives him the inside track in preventing a centuries-old curse from endangering the entire town. But to do that he’ll have to rally an unlikely group of allies including Courtney, Neil, Neil’s jock brother, Mitch (Casey Affleck), and class bully, Alvin (Christopher Mintz-Plasse), and tangle with witches, zombies and an angry mob to put an end to the curse once and for all.
The animation style Butler and Fell utilize is unlike the norm and the blend of stop-motion, CGI and 3D gives the film a unique look that works very well to convey the herky-jerky movements of the zombies. The human characters are done in exaggerated style for maximum visual humor and their fun designs get the easy laughs, but their expressive animations convey emotions well.
One thing I’m pretty sure of is that despite the animation style, “ParaNorman” is not really a kid’s movie. Sure there’s some wacky bits and the whole zombie theme should be a (ugh) dead giveaway to parents, but there’s also some language and other themes that aren’t suitable for younger children. That’s a bit surprising considering that slightly limits the audience for this to pre-teens and up, but Butler and Fell commendably don’t compromise on their vision. Sure, it may not be perfect and at other times, it’s awkward, but they’re not content with making an average animation movie and their risks work more often than not.
Jon Brion’s score is beautiful. It’s such an unexpected treat as it’s not like you’re expecting a zombie movie to have the kind of soundtrack you’ll want to get once you leave the theater. Brion accomplishes that here with a tremendous score that perfectly captures the moment and amps the emotional impact. This is one soundtrack that strongly merits consideration come award season. It’s that good.
The middle gets a bit clunky and the one point where the script feels like it’s treading on familiar animated conventions and clichés instead of continuing down its own unique path, but Butler and Fell really put together a very creative, thoughtful final act that leaves a strong impression. It’s such an effective finale that you’ll forgive the slower bits. For its niche audience, “ParaNorman” definitely delivers and for those curious, you’ll marvel at a new animated powerhouse developing into a major force before your very eyes. While it’s not Pixar at the top of its game, “ParaNorman” is easily the most ambitious and creative animated film this year.
Rating: 7 out of 10