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Writing Fantasy

  
At The Picture Show
August 2012

ParaNorman

Sympathy for the dead

Exceptionally animated 'ParaNorman' gives us a supernatural fable with remarkable intelligence and insight

ParaNorman
Focus Features
Director: Chris Butler and Sam Fell
Screenplay: Chris Butler
Starring: The voices of Kodi Smit-McPhee, Tucker Albrizzi, Anna Kendrick, Casey Affleck, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Leslie Mann, Jeff Garlin, Elaine Stritch, Jodelle Ferland and John Goodman
Rated PG / 1 hour, 33 minutes
Opened August 17, 2012
(out of four)

Leave it to a stop-motion animated film to provide the kind of maturity and conscience far beyond its protagonist's years. That's what we get in ParaNorman, which has more insight into human nature - and a fuller perspective of it - than most films, live-action or otherwise. I wouldn't hesitate to call it wisdom.

That it is so unusually perceptive - all while following a well-worn path with pre-arranged solutions and lessons - is a testament to just how special it is. Outsider stories are commonplace at the movies - perhaps more common than in almost any other medium. (Though I confess my own personal proclivity for movies may be coloring my perspective on that.) Here we have another in a long line of those cinematic outsiders in Norman (voiced by Kodi Smit-McPhee), a sweet kid whose parents don't understand him, whose older sister considers him a nuisance, and whose classmates treat him with scorn and repulsion.

Norman has a typical boy's curiosity for the morbid and macabre - horror-movie posters adorn his wall from corner to corner. In his case, it could be because of (or maybe even in spite of) his peculiar ability, which is that he regularly communicates with ghosts. They are essentially his sole companionship, and he has resigned himself to that fact. Even when a friendly fellow outcast comes his way, a husky redhead named Neil (Tucker Albrizzi), Norman is instinctively inclined to shut him out and keep to himself and his otherworldly friends.

Norman's visions, a staple of his daily life for as long as he can remember, have of late become a bit more elaborate, elevating to full-on hallucinations that remove him from his physical surroundings for minutes at a time. This, he is told by his crazy Uncle Prenderghast (John Goodman), is something of a warning, and it has to do with a centuries-old curse that may be unleashed on this seemingly innocent town of Blithe Hollow in the coming days.

Prenderghast's death seems to put the fate of the town in Norman's hands, and in a way it does. But the film unravels deeper layers that turn what we thought was a simple and charming adventure story into something much more poignant. Perhaps the town isn't the real victim after all.

In many ways ParaNorman is not unlike this year's Moonrise Kingdom, another great movie about lost, misunderstood children facing crises, both physical and emotional, that their years have not fully prepared them for. In this case, filmmakers Chris Butler and Sam Fell navigate unexpectedly prickly moral territory, imbuing a superficially simple dramatic equation with nuanced reasoning and astounding empathy. This is a John Carpenter film by way of John Hughes and Stephen King, at once fulfilling and subverting coming-of-age tales and revenge fantasies alike.

Butler and Fell construct a thematic apparatus that arranges key characters in multiple positions at once, underscoring the cyclicity of human behavior - specifically, those human behaviors that contribute to bullying and violence, to alienation and ostracization. It's only appropriate that ParaNorman takes the form of a horror movie, given that it so intimately examines fear as a powerful piece of our psychological spectrum - and the way those fears contribute to the way people treat one another, the way they respond to differences between each other, to people and ideas they don't, can't, or refuse to understand. And as an inevitable part of that line of thought, the film touches beautifully on forgiveness - and the emotional courage forgiveness often requires.

There is one small admission on Norman's part late in the film that is subtly devastating - and even shocking in the honesty of its implications. The more I think about it, the sadder and more frightening it becomes; and yet Butler and Fell handle it so delicately, and with such conviction for what is ultimately a more hopeful outlook on humanity.

In that way and many others, ParaNorman is an exquisite balancing act. It begins as an offbeat comedy - consider the shot of Norman center-framed in between the stomachs of his two arguing parents; or Norman's matter-of-fact response when his Dad asks what he's been watching: "Sex and violence," he says - before moving into darker territory. Its tonal dexterity is captured perfectly by stop-motion whiz Tristan Oliver (who previously shot Fantastic Mr. Fox, Chicken Run and Wallace & Gromit in The Curse of the Were-Rabbit), who provides both immaculate visual detail and has a precise feel for the comedic moment.

Like all the best films about outcasts or loners, this one has a rare understanding of those characters and the complex array of emotional battles they face. ParaNorman aches for every feeling - and earns every catharsis. At the same time, it retains a gleefully tongue-in-cheek approach to its ghoulish material throughout - all the while building toward a knockout of a third act, an extended emotional crescendo that indulges, twists and challenges our expectations both of how the characters will (and/or should) behave, and of how we should feel about it.

Read more by Chris Bellamy


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