Directed by Chris Butler and Sam Fell
Starring: Kodi Smit-McPhee, Anna Kendrick, and Casey Affleck
MPAA: PG – For Scary Action and Images, Thematic Elements, Some Rude Humor, and Language]
For the two or three of you in the room wondering why I’m not reviewing The Expendables 2 (Which was not good in the slightest bit, by the way) let me just sit down to tell you all that I don’t get paid for writing all of these reviews, articles, lists, etc. Therefore, all I really do is take up my time writing, because I love writing about movies (and occasionally games, of course). Because of this, I don’t really see the point in just wasting my time complaining about a movie that I hated when I could, instead, direct you all to the movie that you should be seeing instead. That movie is Paranorman, which is not only one of the best movies of 2012, but also the best animated film of the year.
Paranorman is the story of the titular Norman (Voice of Kodi Smit-McPhee, who you may remember from the adaptation of The Road and Let Me In, the American remake of Let The Right One In), a misunderstood outcast who is obsessed with horror movies and has the special gift of talking to the dead. His whole New England neighborhood considers him to be the equivalent of the village-freak, and his increasingly frequent freak-outs get in the way of their tourist celebration of the anniversary of a witch-hunt that took place in their town 300 years ago. However, Norman ends up being their only hope when an ancient curse causes a horde of zombies to rise from their graves, leading to him transforming from the town’s embarrassment to their hero.
The synopsis above may not sound that original, but believe me when I say that you don’t want to be spoiled. Paranorman, believe it or not, would be the most clever horror/comedy script of the year if not for Cabin in the Woods. But much like Cabin, it’s got some great surprises that I honestly didn’t see coming, especially surprising considering that this was an animated family adventure. Just when you think you have a grasp of what is going on, a new curveball is thrown in that changes the proceedings, allowing for a satisfying experience that is just as smart as it is charming.
The other surprising thing about Paranorman is that, for a film that is gonna mostly be viewed by children, it treats both the comedy and the horror genre with equal respect. The sight-gags, slapstick, and overall humor is charmingly clever stuff that anyone from any age-group can appreciate; but the film doesn’t skimp on horror. Paranorman is rated PG not just because of its frightening imagery and instances of lite zombie gore, but also because it deals with very mature and morbid themes that any fan of horror could appreciate.
The melding of family-friendly humor and horror sensibilties may seem like an unfitting combination, but directors Chris Butler and Sam Fell masterfully meld the tones into its own identity. But the main reason why the combination works is that each of the characters, even the random civilians in the background, are very well-defined and written. Norman is very sympathetic and likeable from the first frame, and he’s surrounded by a colorful supporting cast with distinct personalities and quirks that are incredibly amusing to watch, without going overboard in the quirk department.
The movie is very funny, not just in terms of the slapstick, but also because it doesn’t treat its audience like morons. It’s got some adult humor in a few instances that parents will appreciate, but best of all are the slight nods and references to classic horror (specifically zombie-centered) films that kids can still laugh at and appreciate, even if the reason as to why they’re funny flies over their heads. Plus, the humor is smart in how almost all of it comes from the character’s personalities rather than being forced out of them just to keep the kids from being bored.
The great voice-acting attributes to this too. Not only is Kodi Smit-McPhee able to sell Norman’s outcast nature very well, but he’s surrounded by tons of other great, recognizable stars that I honestly had no idea were even in the movie until the end credits came on. Christopher Mintz-Plasse (aka McLovin) has fun playin against type as the school bully, Anna Kendrick takes a character that could be annoying (the bitchy older sister) and gives it her own nuance and charm, Casey Affleck is hilarious as the thick-headed jock, and John Goodman as Norman’s crazy uncle is…well, he’s John Freaking Goodman, of course he’s awesome.
The absolutely incredible animation is another thing worthy of note, too. Stop-motion is one of those animation forms that we all seem to love, but isn’t attempted enough because of how much work must be put into it. Paranorman sets a new standard in stop-motion. Not only is the animation fluid and the visual design imaginative, but the facial expressions on each of the character models are some of the best you’ll ever see in the medium. The amount of work and care that must’ve been put into making this particular film was probably staggering, and it pays off so, so well.
This is also that rare family film that truly has substance, both on the levels of social satire and thematically. Not only is Paranorman a cautionary tale about the dangers of bullying (Only in the most morbid sense), but this very common thread is given more nuance and originality with the addition of some wry social commentary in the form of the strange residents of Norman’s town. I’d elaborate more…except I’d rather not spoil another one of the surprises that the film has in store.
Paranorman is another one of those hard-to-review movies because of the fear of spoiling people who haven’t seen it yet. As I’ve mentioned before, there are a surprising amount of twists and turns that the plot goes through, and to give them away to any of you would be a disservice to how wonderfully crafted the writing is.
However, if I can reveal one thing, it’s that it all leads up to a climax that is honestly one of the most moving scenes I’ve seen all year. I’m serious, while the themes that Paranorman touches on have been done before, they’re told in an original way, and it’s done with a heart and care that’s rare in animated films these days. Rather than just ending in a slam-bang action sequence like every other animated movie has to these days, the climax of Paranorman is an emotional one that is done quietly and sensitively, focusing on two characters having a deeply moving exchange that lead to very few dry eyes in the audience.
Forgive me if this review is a little short compared to my usual length, but I’d hate to spoil some of the surprise that this film has to offer. All I can tell you is that you can’t miss out on Paranorman. It’s a smart family film that any age-group can appreciate, and one of the best you’ll see all year. If you have kids, see it (That is, if they’re old enough for the material, but they should be fine if they’d seen any of the Harry Potter movies). If you’re a horror fan, see it. If you’re a proponent of stop-motion animation, for the love of god, see it. Just make sure that you don’t miss out on it.
Final Verdict: The smart script and great characters are all that are required to recommend Paranorman. But when you also factor in the gorgeous animation, resonant themes, wonderful humor, and beautifully moving ending to the mix, it’s also one of the best movies you’ll see this year, and certainly the best one on the animated spectrum.
Side-Bar: I saw the movie in 3D. The 3D didn’t hurt or enhance the movie much. Part of me wants to tell you to stay away from the 3D version because of the gloomy color pallette, but there are definitely some instances where it stands out, especially when it’s used to make the enhanced effects on the clay models that much more eye-popping. Plus, I can’t really fault anything that gives the makers of this movie more rightfully earned cash.