Directed by Chris Butler & Sam Fell
Starring Kodi Smit-McPhee, Anna Kendrick & Christopher Mintz-Plasse
I have gone for a change of pace for this week’s horror film review. Whereas the films chosen so far have all largely been aimed at adults, today I wanted to look at a recent film that is geared towards younger audiences. After all, the joy of Halloween is most celebrated by children, and the film industry has never failed to produce a whole array of spooky family films. Just look at the films in cinemas now, with Goosebumps just having been released (in the US at least) and Hotel Transylvania 2 filling multiplexes a few weeks prior. The film I am going to look at today is one that I feel stands at the forefront of modern Halloween-themed classics: ParaNorman (2012)
The studio behind ParaNorman, Laika, have garnered frequent adulation for pushing the envelope when it comes to stop-motion animation. They have embraced all the traditional aspects of the art form, keeping the handcrafted look that makes it feel so special, while also using new computer technology to further enhance their work and push the boundaries of what was thought to be capable. Despite only having three features under their name (the other two being 2009’s Coraline and last year’s The Boxtrolls), the studio has already achieved a distinctive style revelling in stories of dark fantasy featuring misfit characters, leading their work to often be compared to the likes of Tim Burton.
ParaNorman follows the story of Norman Babcock (voiced by Kodi Smit-Mcphee), a young outsider residing in the town of Blithe Hollow, who has the ability to see and converse with the dead. Obviously, the other children in his school see this habit of regularly talking to thin air worthy of some cruel mockery, particularly from typical school bully Alvin (Christopher Mintz-Plasse). His seemingly strange behaviour even isolates him from his parents (Leslie Mann and Jeff Garlin) as well as wildly irritating his bratty teenage sister (Anna Kendrick), especially when he informs them that their deceased grandma is still sitting in the living room watching TV. The only person amongst the living whom Norman befriends is Neil Downe (Tucker Albrizzi), an equally tormented, overweight child at his school.
Norman’s special talent soon becomes very troublesome when he starts getting visited by his estranged uncle (John Goodman), who shares his gift. His uncle tells him that he must carry on the duty of keeping the lid on a three hundred year old curse set upon the town by a witch before she was hanged. After his uncle collapses dead, it is up to Norman to keep the witch’s spirit at bay by reading a passage from a book before night falls. Of course, Norman doesn’t handle his new responsibility at all well, and ends up causing the dead to rise as well as a menacing storm to hang over the town.
There is something about Laika’s visual vibe that makes them perfect for telling dark fantasy stories such as this. As CG animation has now become the standard for mainstream animation, there is something about stop-motion that now seems very unconventional—something that works very much in favour of a story like ParaNorman. The character designs look terrifically quirky, with cartoonishly exaggerated proportions that help with the world’s distorted, fantasy aesthetic. The odd designs don’t ever inhibit the audience from relating to them, however, as some of the best scenes come from personal moments with the characters; one of my favourite scenes involves a solitary Norman in his room alone, listening to his parents argue over his unorthodox interests. It’s genuinely moving seeing Norman as a kid who just doesn't fit in, portrayed with some touchingly subtle animation.
The sets are also jaw-dropping. The studio have created a spectacular immersive world, featuring many staple locations of horror. A principal location is a gloomy wood, which is crafted with looming trees and cold colours, perfectly representing it as vengeful as the main antagonist herself. The locations absorb the viewer into the world seamlessly, which is made all the more impressive knowing that they hand-made miniatures..
What is most surprising about ParaNorman is that the first half does actually manage to be genuinely creepy. Early on in the film, where Norman’s class are rehearsing a school play about the town’s history, our hero has a disturbing vision about the town’s real shocking past. As his school hall disintegrates around him, and his bored classmates are replaced with Blithe Hollow’s solemn ancestors, the film creates an unnerving atmosphere that is quite unexpected considering its main target audience. The effect is augmented by some ingenious staging and chilling score, bringing the past to life to quite literally haunt Norman.
The film’s creepier moments are comfortably balanced with a lot of light humour that, again, is surprisingly mature. The film has a range of visual gags, sharp one-liners and some more adult orientated innuendo. Whilst some of the innuendos don’t always hit, most of them are sure to elicit a few chuckles without ever feeling like the film is trying too hard to feel edgy. A great character is Neil’s older brother, Mitch (Casey Affleck), a typically dim fitness freak who gets inadvertently roped into saving the town with his little brother and Norman, although he would much rather pump iron than fight the undead.
There are many fun homages thrown in for horror fans, including clever little references to the classic slasher films Halloween and Friday The 13th. The zombie film that Norman is watching at the beginning, with its vivid red lighting and techno soundtrack, is reminiscent of a film by Dario Argento, one of the master horror filmmakers. Such allusions suggest that the film was made by people who have a passion for scary cinema, and their admiration pours into every shot of the film, making it a great deal of fun for any horror fan to sit through. It is like all the main horror tropes have been mixed together and presented in one bright, inoffensive package.
What I respect most about the film are the themes and message it delivers. While it does have a slight familiarity about it (there is the typical ‘don’t change who you are’ line), ParaNorman ultimately manages to be a lot more thoughtful than the standard run of family fare. The overarching theme of how fear can be the cause of unnecessary violence and hate rings very true, and the films treats it with such seriousness that is very refreshing. People bully Norman because they don’t understand him; they are, in a way, afraid of him. His father is constantly furious with his fascination with ghosts because, as his mother says, he is afraid for him. The theme reaches an emotional zenith in the film’s last twenty minutes. I won’t spoil what happens here, but will say that the filmmakers are not afraid to go to grim places. It results in a climax that is both heartbreaking and uplifting.
If you stay til after the end credits in any of Laika’s films, you are treated to a glimpse of just how painstaking the stop-motion process is. In the case of ParaNorman, we get to see a time-lapse of a Norman model being made from scratch, from metal armature to finished puppet, and then animated walking off screen. It never ceases to amaze me, the sheer effort and deft skill all the animators and model-makers possess. I do have to mention, however, that this post-credits clip is trumped in The Boxtrolls, in which Richard Ayoade’s character questions his existence, wondering whether their whole world is controlled by giants moving them. As he ruminates to his companion (voiced by Nick Frost), the camera slowly zooms out showing the time-lapse of an animator working tirelessly around them. He casually quips, “I don’t know how they get the time”. I share the same astonishment.
There is no denying that I love practically everything about ParaNorman. I love its ghoulish sense of humour, filled with darkly funny slapstick as well as some wry one liners. I love the whole premise of a small quaint town being attacked by supernatural forces. And I love that it’s a kid-friendly celebration of the horror genre with several nods to the classics. Next week, for the final Throwback Thursday horror review of October, I will be looking at one of those said classics. No prizes for guessing what it is.