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Dustin Putman

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ParaNorman  (2012)
3 Stars
Directed by Chris Butler and Sam Fell.
Voice Cast: Kodi Smit-McPhee, Tucker Abrizzi, Anna Kendrick, Casey Affleck, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Leslie Mann, Jeff Garlin, Elaine Stritch, Bernard Hil, Jodelle Ferland, Tempestt Bledsoe, Alex Borstein, John Goodman, Hannah Noyes.
2012 – 93 minutes
Rated: Rated PG (for scary images, thematic elements, some rude humor and language).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman, August 16, 2012.
For lovers of the dark, otherworldly and macabre, delighting through the 93-minute "ParaNorman" will be akin to attending a horror-themed amusement park, exploring a desolate and foreboding haunted house, and simultaneously watching 1985's "The Return of the Living Dead" and 1993's "Hocus Pocus" all rolled up into one. The writing-directing debut of Chris Butler with co-director Sam Fell (2008's "The Tale of Despereaux"), this project, produced by LAIKA (the same studio behind 2009's "Coraline"), is filled to bursting with a passion and love for the horror genre that assures the story and characters are taken very seriously, even when the tone or the seldom ingeniously acerbic dialogue and visual cues also give it a rich, potent brand of unkiddified humor. Spooky, charming and poignant besides—the movie fearlessly touches upon the subject of death in a way that does not pander to children, remaining mature yet accessible—"ParaNorman" arrives as every bit a one-of-a-kind creation. Simply put, it is no less than the most confident, fully realized, and just plain imaginative stop-motion animated feature since 1993's holiday classic "The Nightmare Before Christmas."

From the outside looking in, the sleepy New England burg of Blithe Hollow would appear to be just the right hometown for 11-year-old Norman Babcock (voiced by Kodi Smit-McPhee) to live in. He sees and talks to spirits everywhere he goes—dearly departed Grandma (Elaine Stritch) continues to knit away on the couch—but no one, not even parents Sandra (Leslie Mann) and Perry (Jeff Garlin) and snooty older sister Courtney (Anna Kendrick), believe him. The idea of being able to communicate with the afterlife doesn't sound like such a stretch for a community best known for the impending 300th anniversary of a witch's death, but so be it. Prepping for the school play (wherein Donovan's moody-cool "Season of the Witch" shall be sung) and dealing with bully Alvin (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) is what Norman currently fills his days with—that is, until he is visited by his hobo uncle Mr. Penderghast (John Goodman) and warned that the witch's curse is about to be unleashed. Pretty soon, the zombified bodies of the founding fathers responsible for alleged witch Aggie's (Jodelle Ferland) death are sprouting from the graveyard and attacking the town. If Norman and new best friend Neil (Tucker Albrizzi) don't find a way to defeat them by sunset and put Aggie's angered ghost to rest, it could mean the end of Blithe Hollow as everyone knows it.

The art of stop-motion is the most painstaking of all animated mediums—if film moves at twenty-four frames per second, that means there are over 1,400 required set-ups per minute—so it is especially fulfilling to come upon a movie that lives up to the dedication with which it was mounted. Appropriately jerky like a Ray Harryhausen creation and sumptuously atmospheric with mysteries of the unknown going bump in the night, each character and landscape has a personality, each mold of the clay an irresistible homegrown quaintness belied only by its sheer technical wonderment and complexity. The town of Blithe Hollow is a triumph of art direction, inspired, no doubt, by Salem, Massachusetts, by way of a fictional hamlet where Halloween lasts pretty much 365 days per year. The town's motto—"A nice place to hang!"—features a pointy-hatted hag in a noose. All of the stores are appropriately themed. The town square features a statue of the infamous 300-year-old witch in question. And the specters whom Norman chats with, while unseen by others, sure are a lively bunch.

Film references range from fairly obvious to sly as can be, from the opening cheesy '80s horror movie that Norman watches on TV, the zombie's yelling out for "Brainnnnnns!" to the cell phone ringtone that plays John Carpenter's immortal "Halloween" theme (this latter detail is followed up by a "Friday the 13th" nod even whilst still aping a direct scene from Carpenter's 1978 slasher watermark). Every image of "ParaNorman," in fact, is dripping with "blink-and-you'll-miss-them" flourishes and Easter eggs, and that extends past horror, too; the movie is also an affectionate ode to coming-of-age teen cinema of the John Hughes ilk, from Norman's daily grind at school to sister Courtney's instant gaga crush on Neil's buff, dumb-as-a-nail older brother Mitch (Casey Affleck). In Norman is a kid who just wants to fit in, along the way realizing that to be average, or "normal," is no way to live at all. At the start, his parents chalk up his claims of talking to spirits as that of a kid who just wants attention, who hasn't fully come to terms with his family member's death. "Your grandmother's in a better place," his mom tries to reassure him. "No, she's not," Norman replies. "She's in the living room."

If "ParaNorman" has a mischievous comedic side, it also has a surprising amount of heart. Norman's disbelieving parents come around, to be sure, and so does Courtney, a teenybopper nightmare who learns to value her family more than petty material objects. At the start, she sees Norman as a pest—not because he is one, but because it's the law of 16-year-old girls to be terminally annoyed by 11-year-olds. Funny, how a few lives in danger can turn around a person's outlook. Lo and behold, Courtney genuinely cares about Norman and is willing to fight for him. So, too, is friendly fellow outcast Neil, who has a container of spicy hummus at his disposal and isn't afraid to use it on creepy uncles or marauding reanimated corpses. The finale, busy but coherent, the chaos of a spirit-driven tornado refusing to get in the way of the story's deeper, relevant themes, is as winning as what has come before it, making a valuable point about the silliness and potential societal dangers of believing in superstitions. Bandwagons are a harmful thing to jump onto, and it was this very mistake all those centuries ago—just like it was during the Salem witch trials—that led to untold lives being destroyed and ruined.

A dream sprung from autumn personified, "ParaNorman" is vibrant even in its gloom, a ray of light at dawn bringing hope to a doom-laden evening none of the residents of Blithe Hollow will soon forget. For all of its thrills, its creeptastic imagery, its ominous sorcery and ancient curses, the film, in its purest form, boils down to the tender human story of a pre-teen boy searching for reason and acceptance in a world that doesn't have all the answers. Impressionable younger children will be scared out of their minds—directors Chris Butler and Sam Fell aren't shy about the gory details of life and death—but for everyone else, "ParaNorman" is one of the biggest treats of the summer. For a picture focusing so heavily on the ghoulish underbelly of history and nature, its propensity for compassion and empathy is immensely unexpected, and comforting.
© 2012 by Dustin Putman
Dustin Putman