Film

'ParaNorman' Is a Hilarious, Heartfelt Horror Homage

Films like this are few and far between - emotional, exciting, and endearing.


ParaNorman

Director: Sam Fell, Chris Butler
Cast: Kodi Smit-McPhee, Tucker Albrizzi, Anna Kendrick, Casey Affleck, John Goodman, Leslie Mann, Jeff Garlin, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Elaine Stritch
Rated: PG
Studio: Focus Features
Year: 2012
US date: 2012-08-17 (General release)
UK date: 2012-08-17 (General release)
Website
Trailer

We critics love to complain about how Hollywood fails the family. Instead of providing them with rich, substantive entertainment for all ages, they gather up a bunch of known names, plug them into an already established CGI relic, and count up the international box office receipts. The product doesn't have to be good, it just has to be... product. So when something comes along worth celebrating, that takes the time to be defining and different, we naturally do so with a fair amount of apprehension. After all, the studio suits wouldn't subject us to so much mediocrity if the demo didn't eat it up in droves. Now comes ParaNorman, the latest from the company behind the compelling Neil Gaiman adaptation, Coraline and it stands as one of the best animated features of the year. Naturally, one is wary of such a pronouncement, and not because of aesthetics.

No, when something as special as this comes along, joy must be always juxtaposed against reality. Films like this are few and far between; it's emotional, exciting, and endearing. Like Trick 'r' Treat or The Cabin in the Woods, this is a heartfelt homage to horror movies past and present, a giddy combination of Goosebumps and the Groovie Goolies. It's reminiscent of the child-friendly frights delivered decades ago, titles like Mad Monster Party, but with a fresh, post-modern attitude. It's also a languid lament for being different, for not being accepted and not finding easy or lasting interpersonal connections or friendships. It carefully treads the same stereotypical waters as other 'outsider as hero' fairytales while turning the standard scary movie tropes on their ironic, inviting head. The result is a return to the days when such films talked to kids, not down at them.

Norman (voiced by Kodi Smit-McPhee) is a typical nerd, living in a town best known for its witch trial past and present day 'curse.' Few believe in such nonsense, but not our hero. He himself is 'blessed' with the ability to see the dead, ghosts who wander the streets and suburban homes lost and unable to settle their earthly business. This drives his mom (Leslie Mann), dad (Jeff Garlin) and teen sister Courtney (Anna Kendrick) bonkers and makes him an easy target for school bully Alvin (Christopher Mintz-Plasse). When Norman's crazy uncle (John Goodman) informs him that he is the only one capable of stopping the impending destruction of the town, our tiny hero has to prepare for the worse. Turns out, the curse is real and involves the raising of the dead. Now Norman must team up with his chubby pal Neil (Tucker Abrizzi), dim jock Mitch (Casey Affleck) and an unlikely ally to stop the spirits once and for all.

As madly inventive as anything from Pixar yet geared toward the aging fright fan in all of us, ParaNorman is a godsend. It should be greeted with choirs and carnivals, not the cynical snubs of an Ice Age/Shrek/Madagascar brainwashed brood. This is smart, sophisticated storytelling, each little detail adding another layer of lovability to what is, already, a dread geek's dream. The notion of boy vs. the undead drags up images both happy and horrifying and ParaNorman doesn't shy away from either. This is not scary so much as unsettling, and the humor is gentle, not driven by already antiquated pop culture references and crude cracks at bodily functions. Everything centers around our undersized hero, his small circle of associations, and the immense burden placed on his delicate, dorky shoulders.

Directors Sam Fell and Chris Butler do an excellent job of establishing the melancholy life Norman wanders through. His small town is drawn in delicate, direct details and the character design suggests a combination of cartoon and real world association. This is especially true of the teens, from Courtney's Kardashain-esque bottom and Mitch's embellished cut athleticism. Norman and Neil might look like easy exaggerations, but you've seen kids like this walking home alone from school every day, their heads hung to avoid eye contact. Even more impressive are the monsters, an equally clever combination of recognizable looks and scary movie softening. Underage audience members might be frightened by these figures, initially, but ParaNorman does some very interesting with them during the third act.

In fact, it's this transformation that turns ParaNorman from a cute coming-of-age joke to a genuine delight. We expect the standard heroes and villains from a family film, the creators believing that anything more complicated will cause the wee one's brain to explode (or, perhaps, inspire too many unanswerable questions for Mom and Dad to deal with). But here, such lines are blurred, sometime on purpose, sometimes more subtlety. We always suspect that those who initially come across as bad will show a softer side eventually. ParaNorman plays on those expectations and then pushes them aside to deliver well-drawn, dimensional... beings.

Still, parents might fret that they are taking their unprepared progeny to something that might scar them for life, and ParaNorman does dwell in the dark side. But it's no more "terrifying" than a spooky bedtime story, or the various Potters/Snickets/Steins out there. Fell and Butler lessen the possible impact with plenty of humor and lots of heart. Yes, there will still be a few "between the fingers" moments for the more sheepish of your offspring, but for many, this will be there macabre jumping off point, the exact moment when their love of all things horror came into being. We obsessives all have them, a movie or series that showed us the value within the often dismissed genre. ParaNorman is so much more than one big boo. Luckily, there's a little of that here as well.

8

To be a migrant worker in America is to relearn the basic skills of living. Imagine doing that in your 60s and 70s, when you thought you'd be retired.


Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century

Publisher: W. W. Norton
Author: Jessica Bruder
Publication date: 2017-09
Amazon

There's been much hand-wringing over the state of the American economy in recent years. After the 2008 financial crisis upended middle-class families, we now live with regular media reports of recovery and growth -- as well as rising inequality and decreased social mobility. We ponder what kind of future we're creating for our children, while generally failing to consider who has already fallen between the gaps.

Keep reading... Show less
7

Very few of their peers surpass Eurythmics in terms of artistic vision, musicianship, songwriting, and creative audacity. This is the history of the seminal new wave group

The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame nominating committee's yearly announcement of the latest batch of potential inductees always generates the same reaction: a combination of sputtering outrage by fans of those deserving artists who've been shunned, and jubilation by fans of those who made the cut. The annual debate over the list of nominees is as inevitable as the announcement itself.

Keep reading... Show less

Barry Lyndon suggests that all violence—wars, duels, boxing, and the like—is nothing more than subterfuge for masculine insecurities and romantic adolescent notions, which in many ways come down to one and the same thing.

2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) crystalizes a rather nocturnal view of heterosexual, white masculinity that pervades much of Stanley Kubrick's films: after slithering from the primordial slime, we jockey for position in ceaseless turf wars over land, money, and women. Those wielding the largest bone/weapon claim the spoils. Despite our self-delusions about transcending our simian stirrings through our advanced technology and knowledge, we remain mired in our ancestral origins of brute force and domination—brilliantly condensed by Kubrick in one of the most famous cuts in cinematic history: a twirling bone ascends into the air only to cut to a graphic match of a space station. Ancient and modern technology collapse into a common denominator of possession, violence, and war.

Keep reading... Show less
10

This book offers a poignant and jarring reminder not just of the resilience of the human spirit, but also of its ability to seek solace in the materiality of one's present.

Marcelino Truong launched his autobiographical account of growing up in Saigon during the Vietnam War with the acclaimed graphic novel Such a Lovely Little War: Saigon 1961-63, originally published in French in 2012 and in English translation in 2016. That book concluded with his family's permanent relocation to London, England, as the chaos and bloodshed back home intensified.

Now Truong continues the tale with Saigon Calling: London 1963-75 (originally published in French in 2015), which follows the experiences of his family after they seek refuge in Europe. It offers a poignant illustration of what life was like for a family of refugees from the war, and from the perspective of young children (granted, Truong's family were a privileged and upper class set of refugees, well-connected with South Vietnamese and European elites). While relatives and friends struggle to survive amid the bombs and street warfare of Vietnam, the displaced narrator and his siblings find their attention consumed by the latest fashion and music trends in London. The book offers a poignant and jarring reminder not just of the resilience of the human spirit, but also of its ability to seek solace in the materiality of one's present.

Keep reading... Show less
8

Canadian soul singer Elise LeGrow shines on her impressive interpretation of Fontella Bass' classic track "Rescue Me".

Canadian soul singer Elise LeGrow pays tribute to the classic Chicago label Chess Records on her new album Playing Chess, which was produced by Steve Greenberg, Mike Mangini, and the legendary Betty Wright. Unlike many covers records, LeGrow and her team of musicians aimed to make new artistic statements with these songs as they stripped down the arrangements to feature leaner and modern interpretations. The clean and unfussy sound allows LeGrow's superb voice to have more room to roam. Meanwhile, these classic tunes take on new life when shown through LeGrow's lens.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image