With 2009’s “Coraline” and now “ParaNorman,” the artists at LAIKA, Inc. have asserted themselves as some of the best minds in contemporary animation. While not as cerebral as Pixar’s best works, LAIKA’s two features achieve the same great feat that the productions of that preeminent studio are known for: transcending the “family film” mold by actively appealing to every member of the family, rather than just the children.
Like “Coraline,” “ParaNorman” is tonally darker than the average animated feature–complete with real-world bullying and foreboding supernatural creatures like ghosts, zombies, and a witch–but its ample comedic relief and spirited action sequences ensure that the movie never descends to the macabre depths of its Henry Selick-helmed predecessor.
The eponymous protagonist (voiced by Kodi Smit-McPhee), has a peculiar gift: he can interact with ghosts. This behavior relegates Norman to outcast status at school, where he is picked on by meanie Alvin (Christopher Mintz Plasse), and troubles his parents (Jeff Garlin and Leslie Mann), though they dismiss his living room conversations with his deceased grandma (Elaine Stritch) as a phase rather than a reason for psychiatric evaluation.
Norman’s paranormal sensitivity comes in handy when a centuries-old curse cast upon his town by a witch (Jodelle Ferland) comes to fruition, causing a pack of zombies to roam the streets. Given his prior experience with the dead and intimate knowledge of the curse, thanks to interactions with a local eccentric (John Goodman) who had been warding it off for years, Norman is the only one who can save his fellow citizens from havoc.
LAIKA once again uses stop-motion animation to gorgeous effect, with bold colors and immaculate character design (Norman’s only friend, the pudgy Neil, is a real treasure). The studio’s visuals have become even more cinematic since “Coraline,” thanks to directors Chris Butler and Sam Fell’s adoption of the ‘Scope aspect ratio to allow for more complex compositions and efforts to minimize the drawbacks of stop-motion (particularly strobing). Even the 3-D effects are bright and pleasant, if unnecessary. “ParaNorman” is every bit as visually accomplished as the more technically complex computer animated films from Pixar and DreamWorks.
But for as beautiful as “ParaNorman” is on the surface, it wouldn’t be the film that it is without its lovable cast of characters. Inhabiting a relatively straightforward (albeit well-told) story, they make the proceedings feel fresh every step of the way. Norman is a spunky and sympathetic protagonist, but the supporting characters are even more appealing. Norman’s Barbie-doll of an older sister and Neil’s jock of an older-brother, voiced by Anna Kendrick and Casey Affleck, respectively, are particularly funny — stereotypes at first glance, but revealing of many uniquenesses as they become involved in the action plot. An hysterically delivered last-minute revelation about Affleck’s character is truly ballsy and will undoubtedly alienate socially conservative parents.
Apart from the richly spun personalities, there are comedic references aplenty for adult viewers to chew on while their younger counterparts sit back and enjoy the simple mechanizations of the story. Horror fans will be in heaven, as there are numerous sight gags that allude to late-‘70s and early-‘80s genre staples like “Halloween,” “Friday the 13th,” and “A Nightmare on Elm Street.” There are also more general quips that tackle subjects like Irritable Bowel Syndrome and adult video stores, which will hopefully fly right over kids’ heads.
“ParaNorman” may prove too frightening for children under age 8 or 9–after all, it’s essentially a zombie movie, albeit a toned-down one–but it is otherwise a perfect selection for audiences of any age. The film is never groundbreaking, but it achieves what it sets out to do with sharp storytelling and eye-popping visuals. My only complaint is that it should have been released in October, when it would have functioned as a perfect warm-up for Halloween. Alas, viewers will just have to get in a spooky mood two months early, because “ParaNorman” is not to be missed.