Pixar DIDN’T make ‘ParaNorman’.

I just wanted to say that, straight off the bat, because a lot of people still believe – where smart and funny and beautiful- to-look at animated movies are concerned – that Pixar is the only game in town. But after the critical trashing of ‘Cars 2’ and the lukewarm response to ‘Brave’, Pixar might be having a few problems.

Rest assured that if Pixar lose their crown, Oregon-based Laika studios will be there to snatch it up.

Because Laika DID make ‘ParaNorman’. And ‘ParaNorman’ is a perfect jewel of a creepily fun family movie. 

Norman Babcock (great voice work from Kodi Smit-McPhee) is an eleven year old boy with a very special gift. He can see and talk to dead people. This makes him kind of a misfit in Blithe Hollow, the little town where he lives. His father doesn’t understand him, his mother worries about him, his not-so ‘mean girl’ sister is embarrassed by him and the kids at school think he’s a freak. But when a centuries-old curse descends on Blithe Hollow, raising the dead and reviving the spirit of a vengeful witch, Norman and his ‘freaky’ talent is the only thing that might save them.

‘ParaNorman’ is an excellent film, perfectly rendered in stop-motion animation, with a screenplay that is fast and scary and funny enough to keep the kids transfixed while their parents enjoy some cool ‘horror in-joke’ references and the whole family is rewarded with a heap of colourful characters, energetic vocal performances and smart storytelling.

In tone, it falls somewhere between ‘Coraline’ (2009) – Laika’s previous, and also quite amazing, stop-motion feature – and ImageMovers’ ‘Monster House’, an underrated little movie that was hamstrung by an imperfect script and some fake-looking performance capture animation.

‘ParaNorman’ isn’t as dark and disturbing as ‘Coraline’ but it’s funnier and even more playfully scary. And it’s warmer and cleverer and way more impressive on every level than ‘Monster House’.

There may be one or two moments in ‘ParaNorman’ that are a bit too scary for very young children but it’s otherwise beautifully pitched, and although the message of the film is obviously to accept everyone no matter how different they are, and that being scared of someone’s difference can bring out the worst in all of us, ‘ParaNorman’ never gets schmaltzy or tries to sledgehammer that message home.

In fact, this script – superbly crafted by British screenwriter / co-director Chris Butler – is as cleverly textured as the gorgeous characters and sets depicted on screen. While Norman’s adventure never loses pace, Butler also manages to include a neat commentary on what really inspired the Salem-type witch trials, a smart sequence where we learn that a mob of scared living people can be more mindlessly frightening than any zombie horde, a nifty mention about what ghosts really are and why they’re here (which might put some nervous children’s minds at rest) and a fantastic end-of-second-Act twist involving the identity of the witch that spins the story into a whole new direction and ingeniously adds an intense and emotionally honest extra level to the proceedings.

Add to that a fierce little scene involving Norman and his friends in a van with a zombie trying to break through the roof while a motorbike cop is in hot pursuit… a tense sequence where they take refuge in the town hall and find themselves in more danger from the hysterical townspeople than from the zombies… a literally explosive encounter in a haunted bathroom stall… and a cute sequence where Norman makes friends with Neil, whose ghost-dog (that only Norman can see) was “ran over by an Animal Rescue van…  both tragic and ironic” intones Neil, sadly…

…a very funny but all too brief use of the Donovan song ‘Season of The Witch’ (one of my favourite moments, I just had to mention it)…

…and a use of 3D which genuinely enhances the experience but don’t worry because I’m sure ‘ParaNorman’ looks amazing in 2D as well…

…put all that together and you’ve got a movie which is not only a great primer for any horror-loving parent who wants to introduce their youngster to the fun of a good scary story, but also has the true magic and joy of cinema woven into every frame.

Go see ‘ParaNorman’ before the zombies eat your brain. It’s supernaturally wonderful.

 

About The Author

Ian White is an author, screenwriter and journalist. His book ‘Witchcraft and Black Magic in British Cult Cinema’ was recently published by Hemlock and he is a regular contributor to ‘Paranormal Underground’ and ‘Starburst’ magazines. He’s currently writing a new book and screenplay and his embarrassingly out-of-date website can be found at http://ianwhitelondon.wix.com/ian-white