Sunday, 23 September 2012


ParaNorman is just so much better than its goofy title and trailer made it sound. Marketing it like a zany comedy was a huge mistake – this stop-motion animation is less Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs and more The Iron Giant. It’s quirky, it’s funny but it has a lot of heart, considerable scale and the vital spark of charm. The characters are much more visually appealing than they look in still images, the animation is the finest stop-motion has ever seen and the story is witty and fun.

Norman sees dead people – and I bet many, many reviews started with that sentence. As a result, he is considered a freak at school, stared at on the street and despaired of by his own family. However, when his crazy uncle dies, it transpires a ritual has been holding a dark force in place, and if Norman cannot take his uncle’s place, a witch’s curse will cause the dead to rise. When the inevitable happens, it falls to Norman, his airheaded new friend Neil Downe, their big siblings and the school bully to save the day, and Norman is unique in being able to not only see dead people but communicate with them no matter their form – but of course, Norman thinks he is better-off alone.

The story is not terribly original at its bare bones – the tragic underlying story owes much to the story of the Paisley Witches, or at least fictional descendents of that same history – but the way it is put forward is both unusual and compelling. The pacing becomes unconventional but the final act is so impressive – so like the climax of an RPG game, in fact – that every decision leading up to it seems cleverly-done. And the characters are very likeable – Norman himself is both vulnerable and strong, his family situation makes perfect sense and the characters who are meant to be funny actually are.

I was struck how the film was so explicitly of its time. Norman uses his phone screen to light a dark room. The bully tries to be street in a very up-to-the-moment way. The script gently pushes the envelope using the word ‘sex’ and having some racy jokes, and the moment some critics are making much of where a character reveals he is gay plays into modern sensibilities. In my view, the latter was the ideal way to have the first explicitly gay character in a children’s animation – funny because it is unexpected but not patronising, excitingly deviant for the young teens in the audience who giggled away and yet everyday and throwaway, as it should be. Neatly done in a film that contains some very clever dialogue, brilliant gross-out humour and genre subversions, most prominent when it turns out the zombies don’t want to kill or eat brains, but only to be helped.

I ended up really growing attached to Norman, with his big eyebrows (that perhaps are inherited from many generations ago…), uncombable hair (for that classic visual gag) and expressive face. Stick around until after the credits to see just how complex the puppets used have become – though there’s something slightly more admirable about Aardman’s pre-Pirates plasticine puppets that don’t use 3D printing, the sheer beauty of this film is a marvel, and those funny octagonal pupils in the puppets’ eyes could only be more expressive using the creepy effect in Madam Tutli-Putli, which would of course ruin the look!

With a cast that, John Goodman aside, is made up of actors most will recognise from somewhere but will have to look up (the dad character’s voice drove me crazy until I Wiki’d his work and saw he’s a Pixar stalwart), the performances are heartfelt and powerful, and the humour is delivered deftly. The emotional range here, and particularly the stunning final confrontation which surely contained a fair bit of CG, show that Laika did not suffer overly from Henry Selick’s post-Coraline departure.

Overall, a fantastic film, that left me with just one question – without the curse becoming real, without the undeniable proof of what he had been saying all along, what would have happened to Norman? Would he be accepted? Or just become his uncle?

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