Directed by: Chris Butler and Sam Fell
Written by: Chris Butler
Starring: Kodi Smit-McPhee, Tucker Albrizzi, Anna Kendrick, Casey Affleck, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Leslie Mann, Jeff Garlin, Elaine Stritch, John Goodman
With PARANORMAN, Laika Studios has put itself on equal footing with larger studios like Dreamworks, Disney, and even Pixar, whose latest releases haven’t been as strong as we’re used to. PARANORMAN has fantastic characters, an incredible level of details, a great heart and a real love for cinema and is definitely different – and much better – than you’d expect from what is being ostensibly marketed as a children’s movie.
After a grindhouse style opening sequence that reminded me of sitting the lovely New Beverly Cinema in Los Angeles – and how long it’s been since I’ve been there, I knew that I was in for something special. Norman Babcock (Kodi Smit-McPhee) is the only kid, as far as he knows, in his sleepy Northeastern town of Blithe Hollow (modeled on Salem, Massachusetts), who can see and talk to the dead. He sees them wherever he goes, and these ghosts, including his grandmother who lives at his house, are usually manifested in the way that they died: impaled on trees, electrocuted, or run over. Norman does his best to be friendly to them all, but this, along with a love for horror and zombie movies, has earned the label of “Ab-Norman”, making school even more difficult to tolerate.
When the local town recluse Mr. Prenderghast (John Goodman) reveals to Norman and his perpetually optimistic friend Neil (a fantastic Tucker Albrizzi) that he too can talk to the dead, and that there’s more than just legend to the witch that Blithe Hollow is famous for, Norman and Neil, along with his older sister Courtney (Anna Kendrick, who I’m assuming is turning in many excellent performances as she can before PITCH PERFECT comes out), Neil’s hunky brother Mitch (Casey Affleck) and Norman’s bully tormentor Alvin (Christopher Mintz-Plasse, who continues to deliver great voiceover work) on adventure filled with humor, some genuine frights, and great visual gags all while battling the undead and trying to figure out how to defeat the witch, whose power could destroy the town.
The design and level of detail in PARANORMAN are astounding, and are definitely made to be admired in 3D. From the fabric on the clothes of characters, to the twisted branches in forests, to the spectacular otherworldly climax, it all pops off the screen. Oddly enough, perhaps the most intricate details that I picked up on were the translucent qualities of Norman’s ears, which always caught light in fascinating ways (I realize that sounds incredibly weird, but watch the film and you’ll see). I found myself mesmerized by the level of craftsmanship by the folks at Laika, especially by the way they were able to blend the traditional handmade feel of the stop motion animated puppets and CGI in a way that was completely seamless and allows the film to be grand and epic when it needs to but able to have some very intimate and emotional moments as well.
One of the strengths of Butler’s script is his approach to his characters. The characters know who they are, embrace that, but Butler is able to play with our expectations of character types, often with hilarious results. Apart from that, the script is fantastic in the way that it makes Blithe Hollow’s residents rich, no matter how long they are on screen, and quirky and unique so you feel that Norman lives in a real town, and though the story is about him, these people make the town what it is. Highlights are the Shakespeare quoting overly dramatic drama teacher and the town cop that chases Norman and his friends down the mountain where the zombies first appear. Chris Butler has a real love of film that also provides many great visual references to horror films and to film culture – make sure to catch the Mondo posters reference in Norman’s room – which makes the film a treat for film nerds. He also plays with our ideas of horror stereotypes in a way that completely changes how you’ll think of zombies.
PARANORMAN is one of my favorite films this year and definitely the best animated film of the year. There’s a level of passion that you feel in every frame, and cement’s Laika as a force to be reckoned with in the animation world. It’s a must see in 3D and the kind of film you’ll want to see again and again, not only because you’ll want to spend more time with these characters, but to find all of the details in every nook and cranny.
PARANORMAN opens in theaters everywhere August 17th.