I expected it to be good, sure. Follow enough American critics and you tend to know that sort of thing well in advance. But the advertising led me to expect a film in the Pixar model, an enjoyable energetic romp with a beautiful emotional core. ParaNorman however is not that film. It has a certain rompiness sure, but of a darker sort, inspired more by horror than by action. It’s funny, but in a quieter way and most importantly, this is a film with a clear message. It’s not preachy, nor is it some emotionless vacuum. What it is, is honest.
Norman (voiced by Kodi Smit-McPhee) is an outsider, as a boy who can see and talk to ghosts, he’s constantly bullied at school by his classmate Alvin (Christopher Mintz-Plasse). But what makes Norman’s predicament even worse, is that he’s no better understood at home. His sister Courtney (Anna Kendrick) all but considers him an alien and his outlandish claims simply confuse his dad (Jeff Garlin). Isolated and misunderstood, Norman is a quiet, shy boy, putting up barriers around himself to protect against an abusive world. But he isn’t allowed to stay behind them for long because his town of Blithe Hollow was, in Puritan times, cursed by a witch, whose restive spirit must be annually pacified, lest the curse take hold and raise the dead. When the usual ritual fails and the witch rises, it is up to Norman to defeat her and return the dead to rest.
As is often the case with such low-key films, ParanNorman is not an easy movie to dissect. Few aspects of it leave much impression individually, but together they form a cohesive and beautiful whole. For example the voice acting and characterisation are very simple. Each character occupies a personality niche. Norman is quiet and gloomy and his trying-to-be-friend Neil (Tucker Albrizzi) is cheerful. Courtney is a vain, bubbleheaded cheerleader, Neil’s brother Mitch (Casey Affleck) has both the hormones and simplicity of a cow and Alvin is a thuggish dork. The story arc really doesn’t cause them to depart from these set personalities either: it’s more their perception that alters.
That said, the voice actors are good within their limited range. Smit-McPhee may give a muted performance, but it has a real melancholy depth. Albrizzi’s acting is the most fun, Neil’s honest positivity and surprising sharpness contrasting nicely with Norman’s more negative character. Also excellent are Bernard Hill as the Puritan judge who condemned the witch to death, and Jodelle Ferland as the witch herself.
The humour is a mixed bag. The obvious stuff, the jokes based on laughing at stereotypes (with Courtney, as the ‘dumb blonde chick’, somewhat uncomfortably singled out as a figure of fun), kind of grate with the low-key atmosphere. On the other hand, some sequences are freaking genius, and my one regret after seeing ParaNorman is that there wasn’t a bigger audience in my screening. I feel this is a film best experienced with a bunch of people willing to laugh at a zombie looking very surprised as it clings to speeding car.
Speaking of looks, the characters of ParaNorman have a far greater subtlety to their expressions than has been seen before in stop motion, thanks to the application of 3D printing. This technology takes 3D shapes modelled on a computer and sends them to a machine that then builds them. Elsewhere the technology is used for custom and precision work, two adjectives that definitely apply to the modelling of faces onto stop motion models. Use of this tech has allowed the production of a greater variety of features, so that these stop motion characters are capable of far more than the usual Wallace & Gromit-style mugging: they can convey real emotional nuance.
So that’s Paranorman, or, at least, all that I can say in good conscience about ParNorman. This film may be all about the message, but it is a message best left for audiences to discover on their own. All I will however say is this – Some art tells us what we want to hear. Often it does so loudly, as the music swells majestically in the background, saying its piece like a patriot might sing his national anthem. But some art tells us the truth, and that’s what ParaNorman does. Sometimes the truth is funny, sometimes it’s ugly and sometimes it’s wonderful, but what this film realises is that it’s not the quality of the truth that matters, but the fact of the truth. ParaNorman does not whitewash, or blackwash, humanity. It is simply honest about us, and that makes for a truly wonderful movie.