Three years ago, name Laika meant little or nothing to most moviegoers and/or movie critics, but after Coraline (2009), the Oregon-based production company’s take on ParaNorman was highly anticipated.
Laika’s second feature-length film, ParaNorman, a supernatural horror-comedy filled with ghouls, ghosts and the obligatory, if still necessary, life lessons involving peace, love and tolerance is even more innovative, ingenious, and impressive than its predecessor.
Norman Babcock (voiced by Kodi Smit-McPhee) is like every unliked, unpopular (fictional) outcast we’ve met countless times before, except Norman, nicknamed “AbNorman” by his intolerant classmates, speaks to the dead, much to the displeasure of his non-understanding parents, Sandra (Leslie Mann) and Perry (Jeff Garlin).
Sandra and Perry desperately want Norman to fit in into the small town of Blithe Hollow’s rigid social structure like his older cheerleader sister, Courtney (Anna Kendrick). Despite the presence of an exiled uncle, Mr. Prenderghast (John Goodman), who also claims he can communicate with ghosts, Norman’s parents prefer a rational explanation for his atypical behavior, like Norman’s grief over the loss of his grandmother ((Elaine Stritch), but that does little to convince Norman that the path to personal happiness involves social conformity.
Norman may have reconciled himself to outcast status, but another classmate, Neil (Tucker Albrizzi), refuses to take no for an answer. More importantly, Prenderghast warns Norman that the town’s 300th anniversary will release the spirit of the long-dead witch whose death the town celebrates unapologetically (and unironically) every year. Norman, of course, fails to stop the curse, releasing the undead (pilgrims no less), to wreak havoc on Blithe Hollow. Norman enlists the aid of Neil, Neil’s older jock brother, Mitch (Casey Affleck), Courtney, and the school’s resident bully, Alvin (Christopher Mintz-Plasse), to fend off the undead invasion and halt the witch’s return.
What seems like an overly familiar horror story, albeit one pitched toward preteens (excluding smaller, more impressionable, more easily scared children) turns into something else altogether. For one, the townspeople aren’t innocent civilians or bystanders. They react aggressively to the presence of the invading undead, turning into an unruly mob, in turn making the undead slightly more sympathetic and like Norman, misunderstood. Norman becomes the leader of a Scooby Doo-inspired gang drawn from disparate elementary and high school social groups.
There’s more to ParaNorman, of course, but that would be saying too much about Chris Butler’s (who co-directed with Sam Fell [Flushed Away]) deftly layered, multi-tonal script that transitions from horror to comedy and back again, often within the same scene. Butler’s script never gets too heavy-handed when it comes to explicating themes, something parents and adults will certainly appreciate. Just as importantly, ParaNorman works emotionally through Norman as the protagonist and the secondary, supporting characters. The third-act’s dark turn that, again, will be too intense for smaller children, contains a surprising amount of resonance (some of it historical).
Whatever you might of ParaNorman’s story or themes, there’s one, indisputable reason for seeing ParaNorman: the stunning, stunningly detailed, endlessly inventive stop-motion animation. Incredibly time- and labor-intensive, stop-motion animation depends on a small army to transform script pages and (usually) crude sketches into a feature-length film and ParaNorman is no different. LAIKA’s set-builders, puppet makers, animators, and other skilled craftspeople contributed to a paradoxically grounded, yet fantastical world filled with impressively imaginative character designs and set pieces to rival anything you’d find in a bigger budgeted release from a better known studio. In short, ParaNorman is a triumph of character, story, and world building worth visiting not just once, but multiple times.
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