2012 is the year of gothic animation. Hotel Transylvania and Tim Burton’s Frankenweenie are still to come, but ParaNorman is first up this September. Directed by Sam Fell and Chris Butler (who previously worked on the 3D stop motion animation, Coraline) expectations are high.
As his dead Grandma asks Norman to turn up the heating to soothe her cold feet, we are invited into an extraordinary children’s animation. You see, Norman talks to dead people and loves the world of horror. ParaNorman opens to an old zombie movie, brains galore and backed by 80s synthesizers, setting the tone for a film that is not afraid to scare. There are more than a few grotesque scenes in ParaNorman - a dead man’s tongue slobbering about on Norman’s face being one of the most revolting. Parents might think ParaNorman is too frightening for their little ones, and perhaps it will be for some, but it plays on what children want to see.
Underneath the horror, there is a more familiar story at work in ParaNorman. Scolded by his parents and tormented by his classmates, Norman is an outcast and so ParaNorman ultimately becomes a tale about bullying and fitting in. ParaNorman’s creators use the main plot - Norman’s gift means he is the only person who can save his town from a 17th century witch’s curse - to illustrate the need for tolerance in society.
While ParaNorman makes some astute comments on bullying - ‘you can’t stop bullying, it’s a part of human nature... it’s survival of the thickest,’ says Norman’s friend Neil - ParaNorman uses too many conventional storytelling devices to be entirely surprising. Neil, an overweight boy who is also a target for bullies, frequently steals the show but we’ve seen his character many times before. The school bully is similarly conventional but lacks Neil’s comedy dialogue, making him predictable and unexciting throughout. Courtney and Mitch also become the familiar teenage girl and athletic guy, which feels cliche and dull until a later twist.
On the plus side, Norman’s parents offer an amusing commentary on the modern world - ‘you promised me a meal that someone else microwaved,’ says Norman’s mum to his father. The zombies and their exposure to the modern world also provide the opportunity for some solid humour.
But what is most striking about ParaNorman is its stop-motion. As anticipated, ParaNorman’s stop-motion is incredible. From the characters’ asymmetrical faces and flushed complexions to their unflattering physiques, ParaNorman’s characters are presented in all their flaws. The level of detail is equally impressive from a ‘my other car’s a broom’ bumper sticker on a passing vehicle to a carrier bag blowing in the wind. The subject matter is well suited to the stop motion style and it’s somewhat jerky movements help to build its dark style and add to the scares. Vibrant colours, lighting and attention to detail make ParaNorman’s ending stunning to watch.
ParaNorman begins and ends in impressive fashion, setting up the story with suspense and originality and drawing its themes together for a satisfying and beautiful finale. It’s the middle where ParaNorman runs into difficulty, with familiar characters who team up in a predictable style. But ParaNorman’s stunning visuals compensate for this inconsistency and the finale is well worth the wait.
Running Time: 93 minutes