Norman Babcock sees dead people. The young boy’s habit of talking to spirits of the departed (who only he can see) has earned him the fear and distrust of his sleepy American hometown, and with his black-ringed eyes and spiky hair permanently standing to fearful attention, Norman’s infamy is such that his mere appearance can silence a playground full of kids.
Meanwhile, his parents are growing concerned at his insistence that the ghost of his late grandma is still floating around the house. “She’s not in a better place,” Norman tells his father. “She’s in the living room.”
Norman’s obsession with cheesy old zombie movies leads everyone to assume that his paranormal abilities are all in his youthful mind. But when a 300-year-old witch’s curse suddenly resurrects the dead one evening, it falls to Norman to use his very real abilities to save his townsfolk.
ParaNorman is beautifully timed to coincide with Universal’s centenary, and since it’s from Laika, the makers of Coraline, its macabre air and cheerful references to classic horror chime perfectly with the studio’s monster movie golden age. There are gags here that hark back to everything from John Carpenter’s Halloween to Night Of The Living Dead. The movie even opens with a deliciously-wrought pastiche of a grindhouse zombie flick, complete with scratched film, poor framing and an invasive boom mike which only briefly causes its shapely scream queen to break character.
In fact, ParaNorman evokes that wonderful, forbidden feeling of watching horror movies you’re too young to see so perfectly that I almost wish more of the film had been devoted to this topic. “What were you watching?” a distracted father (voiced by Jeff Garlin) asks Norman, to which he replies nonchalantly, “Oh, sex and violence.”
Inevitably, the movie has to get on with the plot, which involves a quite dark (at least for an American animated film) yarn about a New England town’s 18th century past. Norman’s aided in his quest by a group of sidekicks who range from the charming (his slightly dim best friend Neil, voiced by Tucker Albrizzi) to the somewhat bland – there’s his vapid cheerleader sister, Courtney (Anna Kendrick), the object of her affection, Neil’s bodacious older brother Mitch (Casey Affleck), and Alvin (Christopher Mintz-Plasse), the school bully who break dances, refers to himself in the third person and can’t spell his own name.
That they’re all such stereotypes is obviously all part of the horror fun, but the supporting cast spend rather too much time bickering and making dim observations to properly entertain. Fortunately, Norman’s a lovely little character (charmingly voiced by Kodi Smit-McPhee), and so too are the invading zombies; typical of so many artists, ParaNorman’s creators appear to have had the most fun designing and animating these rubber-limbed ghouls, who totter about the place with sad faces and rotting brains full of dreadful secrets.
As you’d expect from the makers of Coraline, ParaNorman looks lovely. The character designs aren’t necessarily better than that earlier film, but there’s an attention to detail and craft at work here that’s wonderful to behold; just look at how the light slightly penetrates the flesh of Norman’s prominent ears, for example, or the sheer detail in the set designs, or the way the camera’s positioned to accentuate Norman’s childhood view of the world.
ParaNorman doesn’t have the assured storytelling of Coraline, which had the benefit of a Neil Gaiman source novel and the steady directorial hand of Henry Selick. As a result, it’s a film that truly comes to life in individual scenes rather than sweeping you along from start to finish. But those moments of vitality truly are worth the price of a ticket, from that wonderful opening sequence mentioned earlier, via some priceless comedy moments (zombies crammed into an uncomfortable station wagon ride), to an ending which packs an unexpectedly emotional smack on the head.
Be sure to stick around for a magnificent credits sequence, too, complete with a catchy tune you’ll be humming to yourself on the journey home.
Tim Burton’s impending Frankenweenie may mean that ParaNorman won’t be the best animated family horror film of 2012 – we’ll have to wait and see – but ParaNorman’s undoubtedly worth seeing on a big screen, and it’s a fitting birthday present for Universal, the great grandaddy of Hollywood chillers.
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