Hey, who ordered a stop-motion zombie comedy for all ages? Oh, everyone did? Awesome, I have great news: it's called ParaNorman and it will be released nationwide on August 17th (and limited release today). Try not to raise the dead before then, okay?
It's true! After their Oscar-nominated first film Coraline, Laika Studios had set the bar extremely high with regards to visual imagery and creepy storytelling. But now they have struck again with this sophomore gem, a movie as fearless with its message as it is with its hilarious gross-out scenes (errant body parts are involved).
While it falls short of Coraline-levels of awesomeness (an unfair standard, to be sure), ParaNorman is still destined to be a classic for the macabre-inclined. Much like how Pixar re-invented the template for family entertainment, Laika is pushing the boundaries of stop-motion, as well as redefining what kinds of movies are appropriate for children. If you were/are the kind of kid that reveled in the moody, grotesque world of The Nightmare Before Christmas, with its brain-pickings and bug-stuffed boogiemen, this is the movie for you.
ParaNorman tells the story of Norman Babcock, a boy with a gift. He sees dead people. But unlike others endowed with such a disturbing sixth sense, Norman takes his abilities in stride, getting to know the many ghosts of Blithe Hollow, the New England town in which he lives. Others are not so accepting of his supposed talents. Mercilessly teased at school and misunderstood by his family, Norman most definitely prefers the company of the dead to the living.
It's a good thing he lives in a town famous for its historic witch trials! Blithe Hollow is a rich autumnal setting, that riffs on real-world spooky destinations like Sleepy Hollow and Salem. There are centuries of ghosts there for Norman to talk to, but as it turns out, not all are benevolent. When a 300-year-old curse on the town comes to fruition, Norman is thrust into a thrilling, dangerous, and utterly hilarious quest to stand up for the town that has never stood up for him.
There is so much more I'd love to spill about the plot—especially its amazing third act—but this movie sheds narrative layers so fast, it's impossible to describe it without blurting out spoilers. And if I ruined ParaNorman for you, you'd be well within your rights to set zombies on me for retribution. Just know that the finale packs a fantastic punch, even if it gets there somewhat clumsily.
Revelations? ParaNorman's got 'em.
Indeed, the movie's special charm is how carefully it constructs stereotypes only to joyfully kick them down. There is a strong anti-bullying message throughout, yet none of film's "villains" are as cut-and-dried as say, Biff Tannen of the Back to the Future series. Norman's only friend, a precocious kid named Neil, casually points out that there is actually nothing personal about bullies, and that if Norman himself was bigger, he'd probably be one too. Furthermore, in a case of ingenious casting, the school tyrant Alvin is voiced by Christopher Mintz-Plasse, an actor usually typecast as a nerd. Alvin actually sounds like a real bully, his voice overflowing with that specific pitch of insecurity so prevalent in grade school despots; a war-cry for help.
This is all without getting into the design of the film, which is ambitious, breathtaking, and completely different from other stop-motion movies out there. Instead of hand-painted faces, which were used in Coraline, Laika used a 3D-color printer for the puppets' faces. This advance gives the characters of ParaNorman a much more nuanced and fluid feel. On top of that, the creative use of CGI adds further dimension to the eerie little town of Blithe Hollow. You'll definitely want to stay to the end of the credits for a scene of the Norman puppet being assembled out of intricate parts—after bonding with the character and his wonderfully specific mannerisms, it's very cool to watch him come to life.
It's also pretty cool to watch the dead characters come to life. I mean, are you really going to miss a movie with a half-hour-long, stop-motion zombie attack? We didn't think so.
Are you excited for ParaNorman?