Review by Matt Barone (@MBarone)
Within its first five minutes, ParaNorman stakes its claim as the coolest movie in years for pre-teen lovers of monsters flicks. With its movie-within-a-movie opening, the film kicks off with a scene from a suitably violent and sinister horror flick, one that's being watched by little Norman (voiced with strong emotion by the gifted Kodi Smit-McPhee), a kid whose night light is a ghoul's glowing skull.
He's one of those edgier kids in middle school who rushes home once the bell rings to sneak into his parents' bedroom and watch an old slasher movie without mom and dad knowing. Unlike those forbidden, typically R-rated pictures, though, one of the many good things about this 3-D stop-motion animation delight is that it's kid-friendly; meaning, there's no need for the youngster with the Scooby Doo lunchbox and Goosebumps books in his or her backpack to hide it from the parental units.
Co-directed by Sam Fell and screenwriter Chris Butler, ParaNorman is a beautifully rendered work of puppetry and man-made sets meticulously captured in the same way used to create 2009's excellent Coraline, but it's not just a visual treat. Butler's script, despite its slight overabundance of themes and messages, hits the right note of childhood issues like bullying, acceptance, and friendship balanced with self-referential winks and nods toward the horror films of old, specifically Halloween, Night of the Living Dead, Friday the 13th, and even drive-in grindhouse cinema. Your inner kid, assuming you've ever relished anything scary, will give in to its sweet charms. Watching Norman make zombie faces into a bathroom mirror while brushing his teeth, it's tough not to imagine yourself doing the exact same thing as a youth.
Granted, Norman's ability to see and speak to dead people is a quirk that's all his own. In his local school, the spiky-haired outsider gets tormented on a daily basis, mostly by the chubby, wannabe hip-hop thug Alvin (Christopher Mintz-Plasse); at home, Norman has trouble connecting with his aloof parents (Leslie Mann and Jeff Garlin) and older, Valley Girl-esque sister Courtney (Anna Kendrick).
His only real friends are his deceased grandmother (Elaine Stritch), who hangs out on the living room couch and offers her grandson pearls of wisdom, and portly, rambunctious classmate Neil (Tucker Albrizzi), the latter being Norman's first confidante when it comes time to unravel their town's deepest, darkest mysteries. In a somewhat generic back-story, their community's lineage dates back to Puritans who wrongfully sent a young girl to her death over claims of witchcraft, and now they're all back in the neighborhood as lumbering, decrepit members of the undead.
Admirably, Fell and Butler don't shy away from the concept's inherent creepiness. When the zombies chase down townsfolk, the threat is palpable, not Disney movie playful. Of course, ParaNorman still is a family affair, so there's a minuscule body count, yet it's refreshing to see a kids' film possess the stones to use an oversized corpse for a slapstick comedy sequence. Wisely, Butler paid equal attention to both the genre flourishes and character development while drafting ParaNorman's script, giving its scarier moments a nicely grounded quality.
Norman, carried wonderfully by Smit-McPhee, isn't your typical animated movie protagonist; he's a complicated and thoughtful little dude, assessing every situation with sharp perspective and walking around with an almost emo-level pathos. ParaNorman is similarly concerned with its supporting cast, presenting familiar archetypes (e.g., the airhead older sister, the slovenly school ruffian, the fat-bellied comic relief sidekick) and quickly layering them with surprising arcs and believable motivations.
The further ParaNorman delves into its story's supernatural roots, the less inviting it becomes for the Madagascar/Ice Age crowd. Which presents the question: For what age group is the film most agreeable? Rugrats used to the harmless adventures of, say, sirs Buzz Lightyear and Woody may find themselves soiling their Spider-Man underoos at the sight of brave Norman traversing through a haunted forest and getting sent back in time to deal with a pissed-off demon girl.
Not to mention, underage viewers could very well feel bogged down by the film's multitude of lessons. Just when it's clear that ParaNorman wants to dissuade tykes from picking on others, there's a point made about thinking for one's self and avoiding a mob mentality. And then it's time to believe in one's self, before standing up for what you believe in and protecting those who can't necessarily defend themselves (or, in this case, aren't allowed to eat savagely wrongdoers' brains due to a PG rating). ParaNorman has many things to say, but not enough time is spent on one specific ideal to help any of them fully connect.
So what if it's not about to change the world, though? Taken as a macabre alternative to the usual animal-talks-and-falls-down-a-lot motif used by most other children's movies, ParaNorman is a dark yet warm-hearted creature feature that's as fun as it is well-intentioned. Especially if you chopped it up more with My Pet Monster than Teddy Ruxpin back in the day.
Review by Matt Barone (@MBarone)