Film Review: ParaNorman

2012 animated action/comedy: Directed by Chris Butler and Sam Fell, starring: Kodi Smit-McPhee, Anna Kendrick, and Christopher Mintz-Plasse. [rated PG] Stars given: 4.5/5

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Film Review: ParaNorman

Stop-motion animation hits the horror in a big way

Allow me to start this review by saying this: No, this has absolutely NOTHING to do with Tim Burton.

Just because Burton created and produced possibly the most popular of Stop-motion films (“Nightmare before Christmas”) that does not mean he is the ONLY one who utilizes the subset medium of animation. Granted, Chris Butler was one of the directors “Corpse Bride,” but he also worked on “Coraline,” along with director Henry Selick (who directed “Nightmare before Christmas”). But Burton’s fame seems to overshadow it all, leading to confusion when people began to hear of the films “Coraline” and “ParaNorman.”

Ok, now that THAT is out of the way, let us discuss the film at hand.

“ParaNorman,” directed by Chris Butler, is the story of an unordinary kid in a town that is all about the supernatural, but is ostracized for being MORE supernatural than normal. Norman can see and speak with ghosts, earning him the name “freak” by not only his peers, but the adults as well. So, of course, things don’t bode well for at all when the town’s 300-year-old curse goes into effect and the undead begins to walk the earth.

There are tons of things that make “ParaNorman” stand out as a film. The fact that it is done in the Stop-motion medium certainly doesn’t hurt it, but add that to the dozens of horror-film references, the way the director pays tribute to the old-school “B-movie” film genre, the fact that the film’s climax has possibly the most incredibly human point to make, and the fact that this film was made more for adults than for children makes it an incredible treat.

Oh, wait. What was that? Did I just say this “animated” film was better suited for adults than for kids? But what about the PG-rating? What about the fact that it has those fun and goofy commercials? What about the fact that it is ANIMATED?

First, allow me to spoil the film world’s biggest secret: animation wasn’t originally made for kids. Yes, it eventually trended in that direction and is primarily for them in this day and age, but that wasn’t always the case. Films like “Cool World” and “Who framed Roger Rabbit” are perfect examples of a throwback to the older days where animated films were far too dirty and dark for the little tykes.

Second, let me clue you in on just what Stop-motion animation is. Stop-motion (or stop-mo) is a subset of animation that uses real life figures and puppets on real life stages, whose images are captured one snapshot at a time by the camera. Every frame is done by a person moving the figures a fraction at a time, a feat that is both time-consuming and soul-crushing if something goes wrong. Hours of work can be destroyed by moving something the wrong way, as each frame must be done one after the other and cannot be substituted by “taking another picture” after the fact.

Each figure, setting, prop, and person is made by hand. The characters are built out of neoplastine (a rubbery plastic) and have a “skeleton” armwire in their core, which helps them to stand and be posed. Stop-motion (like “Nightmare before Christmas”) should not be confused with Claymation (like “Wallace and Gromit”), which is made purely of clay rather than having anything inside.

Still sound like “kids stuff?”

Then let’s talk about the horror. As amazingly stunning as the ghostly and nightmarish creatures are (the zombie with the skin hanging below his chin like a second jaw will probably haunt me forever), the true horror comes not from the things of nightmare, but of the ill-called “human” characters.

In fact, Norman’s biggest issues doesn’t come from the ghosts that he sees everywhere, it comes from the people around him. His family doesn’t listen to him, his peers don’t try to understand him, and the adults in the town openly mock him. All this ostracization and abuse causes Norman to withdraw into himself, leaving him bitter and sullen, fighting against the world around him. Is it really a wonder that he loves to surround himself with images, products, and films of zombies?

Now, granted, the film can seem a little preachy if you look deeper into it than just a fun film. The people of the town are flat, stupid, one-note characters, ready to dismiss a different view as “wrong” without a thought and are quick to turn vicious in an undead heartbeat. It is very easy to see them as a representation of the ‘closed ears, closed-minded’ attitude plenty of people take when it comes to certain sensitive issues. And, while the film’s climatic reveal of the plot behind the witch’s curse leaves the audience with possibly the most human sentiment you could ever hear from a film, it goes right back to the same point.

Due to its fun tongue-in-cheek (and tongue- OUT-of-cheek) humor and all around human elements, “ParaNorman” earns 4.5 paws from this reviewer. What is that half-paw for? Stick around after the credits to see a glimpse into the process of creating a Stop-motion figure. The work just might astound you.

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