- Rated PG
- Buy the BD
All photos © Focus Features
Reviewed by Jason Zingale
hey’ve only made two feature films to date, but stop-motion animation studio LAIKA is fast becoming the place for creepy kid’s movies that may not actually be for kids at all. After scaring up some nightmares with the horror-fantasy “Coraline,” the studio is back at it again with “ParaNorman,” a slightly lighter journey into the weird and macabre that will likely play well with pre-teens and older, but may be too frightening for younger audiences. Though parents should use discretion when deciding whether their children can handle the scarier moments, "ParaNorman" is packed with enough comedy that it helps dampen the effect.
The movie takes place in the quiet, New England town of Blithe Hollow, the site of a centuries-old witch hunt that its residents have since exploited and turned into a tourist attraction. It shouldn't come as much of a surprise, then, that young Norman Babcock (Kodi Smith-McPhee) has developed a fondness for the occult and supernatural, although it’s his ability to see and speak with the dead that has branded him the town freak. When his estranged uncle Prenderghast (John Goodman) informs him that Blithe Hollow’s legendary witch’s curse is not only real, but that he’s been the one responsible for keeping her vengeful spirit asleep for years, the duty is passed onto Norman following his death. But after some confusion over the spell results in the witch awakening and raising the dead, Norman must band with a group of unlikely heroes – including his snotty sister Courtney (Anna Kendrick), chubby outcast Neil (Tucker Albrizzi), school bully Alvin (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) and dim-witted jock Mitch (Casey Affleck) – to save the day.
Directors Chris Butler and Sam Fell clearly have a great affection for the horror genre, because it really shows in the finished product, from an opening sequence that plays up the cheesiness of zombie B-movies, to several other references throughout. Though some people will undoubtedly criticize “ParaNorman” for its visual similarities to Henry Selick’s “Coraline” and “The Nightmare Before Christmas,” that’s just because stop-motion animation lends itself to those types of bizarre, ghoulish stories. And while the style may be the same – with an impressive, handcrafted look that features some stuff you wouldn’t think possible without the aid of CG – “ParaNorman” is a very different film.
For starters, it’s much funnier than expected, with some really clever humor that helps to lighten the mood early on. The voice acting plays a big part in making these comedic moments work as well as they do, and though Smit-McPhee and Albrizzi are largely to thank for many of the biggest laughs, there’s not a weak link in the cast. It’s particularly amusing listening to Affleck play against type as the dumb jock, while Goodman’s short appearance continues the actor's recent trend of choosing some interesting projects. The 3D isn’t utilized quite as effectively as it was in “Coraline” (by far my favorite use of the format), and the plot is a bit thin, but the movie is well-paced and never dull. Though it's arguable whether "ParaNorman" totally succeeds as a zombie film for kids like the directors intended, it's a really enjoyable Amblin-like adventure comedy that will make for a fantastic Halloween family double feature with “The Nightmare Before Christmas.”
Two-Disc Blu-ray Review:
Universal's Blu-ray release of "ParaNorman" is packed with a great collection of bonus material, including an audio commentary with co-directors Chris Butler and Sam Fell, a U-Control picture-in-picture track that features a mix of interviews, behind-the-scenes footage from production, animatics and more. But while the U-Control track is a nice supplement to the film, the making-of featurette "Peering Through the Veil" is the best of the bunch, providing a more in-depth look at production design, voice recording, the design and creation of the puppets, and the animation process. Rounding out the set is three preliminary animatic scenes, seven mini-featurettes, and a DVD and digital copy.