Movie Review: ParaNorman
The Charlotte Observer
What was the last animated movie you could relate to German expressionist cinema, Alfred Hitchcock, “Night of the Living Dead” and B-movie horror of the 1950s?
That’s right – none. But “ParaNorman,” the best animated film I’ve seen since the Oscar-nominated “Coraline” three years ago, qualifies.
It’s freakishly funny, suddenly tender, gleefully macabre, genuinely scary, and full of a moral – fear turns weak people into bullies – which is dosed out so gently that it never tastes like medicine. Toss in a voice cast with no weak link, made up of actors famous and obscure and all but forgotten, and you have my favorite film of this year.
Chris Butler makes his writing-directing debut, sharing the latter job with Sam Fell. Butler supervised storyboards for “Coraline” and “Corpse Bride,” and his new film shares a common thread: All three, one way or another, involve the walking dead. Yet “ParaNorman” has a zaniness and warmth all its own.
The title character, Norman Babcock (Kodi Smit-McPhee), regularly sees and speaks with the spirits of dead humans and animals who have emotional business left on Earth. He chats with his late grandma (ever-sardonic Elaine Stritch) to the consternation of his parents (Jeff Garlin and Leslie Mann), and he’s ostracized at his elementary school in Blithe Hollow, Mass.
Yet his talent may now come in handy: An accused “witch” hanged 300 years ago is about to come back, raising from the graveyard the bodies of people who judged her or testified against her. Norman’s odd uncle (John Goodman), the only person who knew how to keep the witch’s spirit at rest, has gone to join the choir invisible and entrusted Norman with that job.
Butler and Fell borrow the look of the picture from old German horror movies, such as “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.” Surfaces are crooked, unaligned, creating a sense of a universe coming apart. (Even bathroom stalls in Norman’s school have uneven doors.)
Their sense of humor comes from Hitchcock and affectionate spoofs of old fright flicks. Norman has to wrestle with a corpse locked tight by rigor mortis, accidentally ruining the furniture and writhing under its huge, toppled body. The zombie Puritans are foul and frightening yet also pathetic: We sympathize with them as much as the townspeople, who turn out to be bloodthirsty rubes.
At the heart of the movie is a heart, a big one. Norman and Neil (Tucker Albrizzi), his portly fellow victim of abuse at school, have the wisdom to realize bullying is a sign of weakness; the witch’s vengeance represents their own pain and anger on a grand scale. Norman needs to learn to forgive people who mock his uniqueness, and they need to learn to tolerate a boy they don’t understand.
“ParaNorman” tweaks traditions: The students who aim to save the village turn out to be the stereotypical grouping of a nerd (two, actually), prankster, football jock, and cheerleading blonde. Yet the villain they battle has unexpected humanity and a surprising story to relate.
Even the casting defies expectations. Christopher Mintz-Plasse, frequently a bully’s victim onscreen, plays Norman’s loutish nemesis. Anna Kendrick, perennially brainy in live roles, voices the dippy cheerleader; Casey Affleck, so slight in real life, speaks for the immense, muscle-bound football player.
The movie is in 3-D, probably because the target audience might fidget nowadays if it heard otherwise. But this modern technology, used only occasionally and to good effect, overlays a picture whose roots and values go back to the beginnings of cinema.