Friday, August 17, 2012

ParaNorman: Whimsical horror with a clever twist

ParaNorman (2012) • View trailer
Four stars. Rating: PG, for dramatic intensity
By Derrick Bang

Norman Babcock sees dead people. Constantly.

And he cheerfully chats with them.

Meet the Babcock family: from left, Grandma, Mom, Dad, Norman and
his teenage sister Courtney. You'll likely notice that Grandma seems
somewhat ghostly; that's because she has been dead for years ...
although this hasn't stopped her loving relationship with Norman.
Nobody else in the family appreciates the boy's, ah, unusual gift.
This unlikely talent has prompted nothing but derision, dismay and the unwanted attention of the booger-picking school bully. “Weird” kids always get singled out for abuse, and Norman is much weirder than most.

He’s also the hero of ParaNorman, the newest stop-motion treat from animator Travis Knight’s Oregon-based LAIKA Inc., which rose from the ashes of the financially strapped studio founded by claymation pioneer Will Vinton. Although LAIKA had a hand in Tim Burton’s Corpse Bride, the new company’s first wholly in-house feature was its awesome 2009 adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s Coraline.

ParaNorman is LAIKA’s second big-screen film, and the first written as an original concept by Chris Butler, who worked on storyboards for both Corpse Bride and Coraline. Butler shares directorial duties on this new movie with Sam Fell, whose previous credits include co-helming Flushed Away and The Tale of Despereaux.

The story is funny, snarky, occasionally scary — perhaps too much so for very young viewers — and unexpectedly poignant at times. The voice casting is delicious, and the 93-minute film moves along at a lively, suspenseful pace.

And the animation is simply smashing. Stop-motion is such a labor-intensive process; the mere completion of such an ambitious project deserves applause. That it turned out so well is icing on the cake.

The random bits of production data are staggering. ParaNorman took two years to make, involving more than 320 designers, artists, animators and technicians. At any given time, these people worked on 52 separate shooting units, representing the various settings of this droll, macabre little tale. An entire week would be spent, carefully manipulating these little puppets, to get between one and two minutes of footage.

None of which would matter a jot, of course, if we weren’t engaged by both the story and its characters.

We meet Norman (voiced by Kodi Smit-McPhee) as he enjoys a televised horror movie in the company of his beloved grandmother (Elaine Stritch). Only one problem here: Grandma has been dead for years, a fact that exasperates Norman’s father (Jeff Garlin), deeply concerns his mother (Leslie Mann), and flat-out disgusts his self-absorbed older sister, Courtney (Anna Kendrick).

En route to school each day, Norman politely greets the dozens of lost souls who inhabit the streets and buildings of Blithe Hollow, a small New England town that cherishes its somewhat grim 18th century association with Salem-esque witch trials. At Blithe Middle school, Norman is routinely pummeled by the loutish, spelling-challenged Alvin (Christopher Mintz-Plasse), and given a wide berth by all the other kids.

All but Neil (Tucker Albrizzi), a genial little fellow also teased because of his weight and various other characteristics (including his irritable bowel syndrome). Neil has made peace with his lot in life; he sympathizes with Norman and wants to be friends. Norman resists at first, perhaps wary of additional heartbreak, but eventually realizes that Neil is the real deal.

Not that the boys have any time to enjoy their new bond. Thanks to a warning from the town’s resident smelly old man, Mr. Prenderghast (John Goodman), Norman learns that the local witch’s ancient curse is scheduled to surface anew on this, the 300th anniversary of her having been put to death. Only Norman, with his ability to communicate with the dead, can stop the curse from unfolding.

Unfortunately, Prenderghast dies before explaining how to do this, and the bothersome Alvin’s interference causes further delays. The result: Shambling zombies erupt from their graves outside of town, and everybody in this pop culture-weaned community knows what that means: The zombies will want to eat their brains!

Norman desperately tries to neutralize the curse before the zombies — and the terrified residents of Blithe Hollow — destroy their entire community. He is helped (and hindered) in this quest by Neil, Alvin, Courtney and Neil’s dim-bulb older brother, Mitch (Casey Affleck), whose hunky physique captivates Courtney far more than she’s frightened by the zombies.

Progress ... proves problematic.

All this horror movie-style mayhem unfolds against the delightfully demented backdrop of Blithe Hollow’s downtown shops and tree-shrouded neighborhoods. The LAIKA animators had a lot of fun with this small-town setting, giving the community a sagging, mildly dilapidated look, like Disneyland’s Main Street gone slightly to seed, with asymmetry and broken edges.

The town looks lived in, with torn circulars on lamp posts, and bits of plastic bags fluttering on fences (a neat trick, in a stop-motion universe).

The character animation is equally droll, starting with Norman’s spiky hair, which sticks straight up like an unmowed lawn. Courtney’s impossibly tiny waist and bulging hips are exaggerated as hilariously as Mitch’s pecs, while other people are shaped along quite unusual lines; Norman’s father’s face, for example, is shaped like a trapezoid, building almost to a point at the top of his flat head (not many brains for the zombies to munch).

The zombies are the funniest — and most ghoulishly creepy — with their various limbs constantly getting lost, snatched or sliced off. Naturally, these disconnected body parts remain ambulatory, and desperate to re-connect with their greater selves. The story’s “ick factor” is guaranteed to delight adolescents raised on Lemony Snicket and R.L. Stine.

The most pleasant surprise, however, is the unexpected tonal shift that occurs as the third act kicks into crazy gear. Expectations are upended, and quite cleverly: a nice bit of scripting from Butler.

Jon Brion’s score is enthusiastically zany, which we’d expect from the fellow who wrote the music for bent films such as Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and I Heart Huckabees. Cinematographer Tristan Oliver has a field day, varying film grain and illumination levels to suit each scene, while editor Christopher Murrie keeps things moving crisply.

On the other hand, LAIKA’s much-heralded “stereoscopic 3D” effects aren’t such a much here. Coraline was a truly marvelous 3D experience, but that added dimensionality isn’t well utilized in ParaNorman. Save your money and see it in conventional 2D.

Aside from its inventive visuals and agreeably warped storyline, ParaNorman deserves credit for its core saga of a misfit’s journey toward redemption and empowerment ... not to mention a sly message on the need for tolerance and inclusion. Big concepts, perhaps, for such a captivating genre parody ... but that’s what makes ParaNorman even more fun.

No comments:

Post a Comment