“Meet Norman. His parents don’t get him. His sister doesn’t like him. And the kids at school always pick on him. But he does have some friends. It’s just that most of them aren’t exactly alive.”
The magic of stop-motion animation has been with us since pretty much filmmaking began. From the great master work of Willis O’Brien to the icon Ray Harryhausen, the process has brought some of the most imaginative films in history to life. Folks like Tim Burton have done wonders to keep the art form alive, as did Neil Gaiman with his Coraline from upstart Laika studios. The studio is back with another spooky stop-motion project. This time it’s Chris Butler and Sam Fell directing Butler’s script ParaNorman.
Norman (Smit-McPhee) is an odd kid who loves to watch zombie movies and act out his favorite parts. That’s not so odd, you might be thinking. But Norman sees dead people. Yeah, we’ve heard that one before. Of course, his parents don’t believe him even when he talks about his dead grandmother (Stritch) who has camped out on the living room couch with her knitting. It’s a burden he’s learned to carry, and it’s just been life as usual until he runs into Uncle Prenderghast (Goodman) that is. His uncle shares his gift and has been observing a troubling trend in the world of the dead. Something big and bad is on the way, and once Uncle P joins the dead himself, it’s up to Norman and his chubby friend Neil (Albrizzi) to save Blithe Hollow before it’s too late. Unfortunately, he misreads a protection incantation and only makes matters worse. Now he’s going to have to face his fears in order to keep the town from becoming a hell on earth.
You see, Blithe Hollow is really known for only one thing. Witches. It was a hotbed for witchcraft in the old days, and now after 300 years the super witch is about to have her revenge on the town that killed her.
Horror fans will find a lot to delight them in this harmless and entertaining feature. There are a ton of nods to various horror films and conventions throughout. Chris Butler is obviously a fan, and he keeps the references coming at you. Like a good episode of The Simpsons, you might have to watch it again just to get them all. It’s a great vehicle for making this one an excellent multi-watchable film. There might not be anything terribly original in the script or the characters, but that isn’t really the point here. It’s not so scary or violent that the kids can’t enjoy it, and the parents will find themselves enjoying it even if it is for different reasons. How can you lose when there’s a little something for everyone.
The stop motion isn’t quite up to Tim Burton’s best or even the studio’s previous Coraline. It almost feels like a cross between stop-motion and a computer-animated film, and I suspect there’s quite a bit of a CG assist in the final effort. In fact I would be hard pressed to find the film even in the same league as A Nightmare Before Christmas or even Coraline. The budget appears much smaller, and the plot’s a bit more streamlined. That’s why it was likely smart of Butler and Fell to keep it lighter and play up the homage angle. This way the film fits rather nicely into its own niche between those kind of efforts and the quickie CG stuff that other smaller studios are putting out.
The voice cast is solid enough. The kids are fine, but it’s John Goodman that quite honestly steals the show with his underused Uncle P. character. Another standout is old Cosby Kid Tempestt Bledsoe as the hilarious Sheriff Hooper. It’s nice to see some brightness in a pretty much budget voice cast.
The film isn’t going to shatter any box office records, and it’s likely not going to be remembered too many years from now. That doesn’t keep it from offering an hour or so of entertainment that works for the whole family. That’s enough for me in an age where movies are merely marketing campaigns “supposed to sell keychains and postcards.”