This fall, we’re going to see how many family-friendly movies based on horror movie tropes can find an audience. The first effort out of the gate is a stop-motion animated movie from Portland’s LAIKA, the studio behind Henry Selick’s Coraline.
Helmed by a pair of Brits, Chris Butler–who also wrote the script–and Sam Fell (Flushed Away), ParaNorman may not have a single visionary on par with Selick, but it also doesn’t have the baggage of being adapted from a popular book, which means everyone involved is able to pull out the stops with ideas rather than being handcuffed by original source material.
And you can tell that this is one of the reasons why ParaNorman works as well as it does.
Norman Babcock (voiced by Kodi Smit-McPhee) is an unusual kid who is able to see and communicate with the ghosts of Blythe Hollow, a small New England suburban town. 300 years earlier, the town came under the spell of a witch’s curse and his dead uncle, Mr. Prenderghast (voiced by John Goodman), tells Norman that only he can end that curse. Along with a gang of oddballs, including his best friend Neil (Tucker Albrizzi), his sister (Anna Kendrick), Neil’s older brother (Casey Affleck) and the school bully Alvin (Christopher Mintz-Plasse), they set out to stop the zombies brought back to life by the curse.
The film is set up rather slowly and innocuously in its introduction of Norman, a weird kid who is the outcast of his small town, not able to connect with anyone at school or even his own family. His crazy uncle Mr. Prendergrast sends him on a mission to end the curse of Blythe Hollow by reading from a book at the graveyard of the judge and jurors who executed a witch 300 years earlier, but instead he brings about their return as zombies.
If the movie focused solely on Norman, it probably wouldn’t have been nearly as fun which is why it gets better as more characters are brought into the mix, whether it’s his weird friend Neil or others. The characters are fun and do a good job making you forget you’re watching animated puppets, and that’s as much to do with the voice acting talent as it does pairing these voices with the mannerisms of those puppets.
Having visited LAIKA during the production and knowing a bit about how the movie was made, it took some time to adjust to the face replacement technique of animation, which makes the faces seem kind of stiff and jittery at the same time (rather than having fluid movement) during the close-ups. While this may be some of the quirky benefits of using stop-motion animation vs. straight CG, it can be distracting at times.
There are two clear standouts among the cast creating these characters, the first being John Goodman as Norman’s eccentric uncle Mr. Predergrast and the second being Anna Kendrick as Norman’s older sister Courtney, a shallow teenager more interested in Neil’s older brother (voiced by Casey Affleck) than helping her brother put an end to the curse. Christopher Mintz-Plasse is one of the voices that doesn’t work as well, maybe because we automatically associate his voice with that of the scrawny McLovin from Superbad, and some of the younger kids’ voices start to get a bit shrill as it goes along.
What sets ParaNorman apart from other animated films is how well the filmmakers and animators capture the look and feel of classic horror films while still maintaining a family-friendly atmosphere, the film having a far more cinematic look one might normally expect from an animated film. A lot of the credit goes to the stunning cinematography of Tristan Oliver, but the solid production design work in creating all the locations within the town of Blythe Hollow greatly adds to it. The action scenes are particularly impressive, including an incredible set piece involving the van full of kids being chased by zombies.
There are a lot of funny and clever moments that teen and older horror fans will get a kick out of in the way they’ve been incorporated into a fairly tame kids movie, but the movie becomes less jokey in the second half offering a number of unexpected twists as well as a number of truly heartfelt moments between the characters.
Parents reading this may wonder whether a movie involving zombies and witches, even animated ones, may be too scary for their younger kids and we do think more sensitive kids may be terrified of some of the scarier moments. Boys of a certain age, maybe 8 and older should be fine, but parents may want to use discretion and be somewhat careful to avoid potential nightmares.
The Bottom Line:
Solid storytelling, clever humor and incredible craftsmanship and animation skills puts ParaNorman a few steps above the normal kid-friendly fare, making it a rare animated movies that should appeal to older moviegoers without kids. More than that, ParaNorman could be the best gateway drug to get your kids ready to start watching classic horror movies.