Tuesday, August 28, 2012


"I See Dead Puppets"

The town of Blithe Hollow depends on the supernatural for its tourist trade.  But, what the city fathers probably don't understand is that if you live by the sword...well, let's just say you'd better have a good cleaning crew.

One of the town's citizens is young Norman Babcock (voiced by Kodi Smith-McPhee) and he has a problem—he sees dead people, all of them. He's ostracized from friends, family and reality...from life, really...as most of his acquaintances are non-corporeal and that leads to bullying, loneliness and a general lack of enthusiasm.  He'd be better off dead—as the only people he can relate to already are.

Then, there's his creepy Uncle (a wonderfully comic vocal performance by John Goodman) who tasks him with a special duty—saving Blithe Hollow from destruction by the wrath of the very witch of the town's fame, killed by the city elders centuries before.  To do so, he must go on a hero's journey with unlikely allies, many roadblocks both physical and emotional, while evading zombies, the undead, jocks, bullies and narcissistic big sisters to confront the evil witch.

ParaNorman is hilarious, quirky certainly, but also has a lot of depth and breadth to it.  It would be an easy—too easy—temptation to call it a Tim Burton knock-off (stop-motion animation, horrorific subject matter...it must be a Tim Burton knock-off), but it's actually far more concerned with story over effect than Burton, whose work can become tangentially derailed for a sequence or bit that the director finds funny, even if its a mismatch for the rest of the film and its nonsensibilities.  ParaNorman stays on track, managing to brings its humor out of character, rather than despite it, and with a sense of comic timing that's by turns subtle, surprising and goofy.  Yes, there are scary bits—it's rated PG, so maybe the littlest of kids shouldn't go—but its horrors are not there to shock, but to thrill.  And when the film does build up a full head of horror steam at the end, it provides some of the most awesome sights and effects that have been seen in animation in quite some time.  A hybrid of the Burton and Aardmann animation studios—directors Chris Butler and Sam Fell worked for both groups, respectively, and you can see aspects of their animation styles meshing, hallmarking the best of both stop-motion worlds—Burton's anticness and Aardmann's appreciation (and mining the comedic possibilities) of stillness.  Combine that with the story of an outsider who manages to collect a posse of co-adventurers who handle the auxilliary parts of the hero's main mission, and you have a well-rounded story that manages to surpass the limitations of the parts (making it, amusingly, a bit of a zombie-movie itself).  

What's nice is there's enough time in the plot (involving more than just the cemetery variety) to appreciate the artistry behind it—the way the town is laid out with abandoned squalor in the detail, the people with perpetually bemused expressions, and are, like us, anything but symmetrical, the way an ear glows with the back-lighting of sunshine, and in the ending that manages to combine moments of dark beauty and true psychotic scariness.  Lots to appreciate.  Lots to like.  It's a fine film that makes the most of its slim ambitions, and rises above them.

ParaNorman is a Full-Price Ticket.

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