It’s been well established over the past decade and a half that Pixar are the kings of the animated film. However, recently, there have been signs that the rest of the world is slowly beginning to catch up. Aardman’s well-received Pirates! In An Adventure with Scientists is followed now by Laika’s ParaNorman, a delightful supernatural tale that will charm you beyond all expectations.
The titular Norman – voiced by promising young actor Kodi-Smit McPhee – is a regular kid who just happens to be able to see dead people and talk to ghosts. This is exemplified in a beautiful opening sequence, where Norman walks down the street, greeting all manner of ghosts with pleasantries and courtesies, and a smile on his face, only to reach the school-yard and instantly shrink into himself, avoiding the other living people as much as they avoid him.
That nobody believes him about his ability is to be expected, and thus poor Norman is left ostracised by both his family and the other kids at school, with the exception of fellow out-cast, the overweight Neil.
Norman’s unhappy existence is thrown into turmoil when his eccentric uncle reveals that Norman’s abilities are tied in with a hidden destiny to prevent an ancient witch’s curse from destroying the town. Thus the adventure begins!
ParaNorman is stop-motion animated, but you’d never tell; the art-form has progressed to the point where it’s virtually indistinguishable from CGI, so seamless and smooth are the models and movements, although admittedly there’s likely a fair share of CGI sheen over the backgrounds, and supernatural effects, etc. Either way, the result is one of the most handsome, atmospheric animations in recent years (probably since Coraline, Laika’s previous effort).
The supporting cast of characters are somewhat of a mixed bunch, with Christopher Mintz-Plasse’s school bully feeling somewhat disjointed and out of sync with the rest of the film, although Casey Affleck’s work as Neil’s super-buff jock-brother Mitch is excellent – and the pay-off to that character’s sub-plot at the film’s end is memorably shocking for a kids film, but brilliantly so.
And that’s what makes ParaNorman great; for the first half the film rolls along nicely, without ever blowing you away, but then around the half-way point something happens. Your allegiances shift. Suddenly the zombies that are marching on the town don’t seem like the monsters you thought they were, and the heroic townsfolk with their pitchforks come to be seen in an altogether different light.
ParaNorman tackles some pretty brave subject matter for a family film (the nature of death, acceptance of others), but treats the audience with respect and intelligence, and the underlying message conveyed is worthy, and delivered in a way that’s affecting while never-ever being preachy.
But don’t worry, it’s not doom-and-gloomy at all; the lively animation – which is appropriately creepy and very nicely styled – keeps things from becoming too heavy, while there are a few stand-out gags and references to classic horror films (look out for the pitch-perfect Jason send-up) that will please kids and adults alike.
ParaNorman, like its main character, is mature, likeable, and has something to teach us all. Exciting and inspiring, funny and scary, unpredictable and honest, this is weird, brave film-making at its very best, the like of which we don’t see enough of in film at large.
Released in UK cinemas on Friday 14th September 2012 by Universal.
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