ParaNorman follows a young man, Norman Babcock in the town of Blithe Hollow (a town name made up as an amalgam of two other witch story towns) who grows up wondering why he is the only one who can see dead people. Call it 6th Sense for 12-year-olds but the floating dead folk are more humorous than scary. ParaNorman opens with our soon-to-be hero talking to his dead Grandmother on the couch at home which only infuriates his family, isolating him and giving us a sense of the loneliness he feels. Grandma, who is beautifully voiced by veteran Actress Elaine Stritch, tells Norman she feels she is hanging around to look after him.
ParaNorman just isn’t your normal Pixar-style animation. In fact, it comes from the stop-motion genius of the people at Laika who created Coraline. This is where Writer/Director Chris Butler received some of his experience working on the Coraline project. It’s in the art department of other darker animations like Corpse Bride that Butler was able to craft the quirky morbid humour that would be needed for ParaNorman however quirky needed a dash more humour for this outing. To get the recipe right it’s clear that this co-directed movie needed a lighter input and this came from fellow director Sam Fell. His resume included a more cheesy set of children’s animations with great mouse tales like The Tale of Despereaux and Flushed Away.
ParaNorman has its own distinctive animation style as the stop-motion design of the characters mixes with sets that have a reach-out and touch feel about them while being in cartoonish dimensions. Blend this with ghostly stop-motion floating apparitions and you start to get the idea. The quality of the on-screen result is superb after the team took a unique approach to design 3D stop-animation by filming each set-up on a Canon DSLR by first taking a shot and then moving the camera on a slide to take a second shot to give the 3D perspective. A tireless endeavour rewarded with a great onscreen result.
The 16yo Australian Kodi Smit-McPhee brings experience from working with Viggo Mortensen on The Road and Eric Bana in the drama Romulus, My Father to voice the key character of Norman. He has a few friends, but only best mate Neil the redhead, played by Tucker Albrizzi, reaches out to truly understand Norman. Together they become inseparable like Frodo Baggins and Samwise Gamgee.
The pretext of our story finds Norman living in a town that has based its history and tourism sector around the century-old story of a witch killed by the town’s folk. While no one believes Norman’s tales it’s the weird Uncle played by John Goodman who trusts Norman with information that will change the town’s history and Norman forever. Without giving the game away let’s say that things always have to get worse before they get better. With just the wrong spin on a perfect plan, we see cursed zombies let loose on the town.
It’s fair to say that most of these characters are more funny than furious and most children probably from 8-10 and over should deal with the plastercine-like characters dropping body parts along the way. Most of the zombies simply moan across the screen like docile children who’ve just woken up but the lead is voiced by a long-dead Judge played by Lord of the Rings actor, Bernard Hill. However, there is another character in the movie that throws a supernatural temper tantrum that can be quite dramatic. I watched the movie with two 12yo boys and their recommendation was that the film was suited to 10-12 and over which I thought was right in the zone.
Parents who have a concern with supernatural themes like Witchcraft, the Afterlife and Zombies will probably want to preview the movie first or be prepared to talk through the empathy given to the supernatural characters as well as the visual imagery that is brought to screen. The movie also deals with some great themes from the death of a loved one and loneliness through to character issues like believing in yourself and others. Norman shows the depth of character in the story by making some wise decisions, digging deep against the bullies and finally having the adults having to catch up with his sensibilities.
The chase to solve the town’s riddle looks a little like a Scooby-Doo mystery at times with Casey Affleck playing Neil’s buff but dim older brother Mitch. Norman’s unusually hourglass-shaped sister Courtney (Anna Kendrick) tries her wiles on Mitch only to be rebuffed at the end in a joke that seemed out of place in a kid’s flick as Mitch announces he’s gay in the closing minutes. Throw all the characters in a van and head off in search of adventure and you’d swear all we’re missing is a Great Dane and Shaggy. In fact, if your kids aren’t took spooked by a Scooby-Doo mystery with the added environment of 3D in a dark room you’re probably on to an exciting holiday movie.
With a few parental warnings that make this recommendation a little different from a typical cartoon kids’ movie, ParaNorman is a great story and a movie worthy of 3.5 popcorn out of 5.