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Movie Review: The Funny, Pleasantly Spooky PARANORMAN Is a Great Family Thrill Ride

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The stop-motion horror-comedy ParaNorman might come branded with the “From the makers of Coraline” stamp of approval, but make no mistake: I’ve seen Coraline, and ParaNorman is no Coraline.  It doesn’t have that earlier film’s finely wrought sense of menace, its richness of character, its knotty and disturbing emotional power.  What made Coraline so vital was how honestly it tapped into the teenage mindset: the way your body and mind and family all seem to conspire against you, and how that mindset informed its Big Bad, a ghoulish spider-woman hiding its true form behind a placid, motherly façade.

Coraline is the kids movie as paranoid thriller, whereas ParaNorman is content with just putting on a show.  Its oddball trappings mask a dyed-in-the-wool crowd pleaser, one with car chases and gags and scenes of kids in peril screaming at one another that suggest ParaNorman‘s directors Sam Fell and Chris Butler are the world’s biggest Goonies fans.  It’s a more shallow film, is what I’m trying to say.

It is also the most beautiful stop-motion feature I have ever seen, and that fact alone merits your full attention.  In their story of Norman (voiced by Let Me In‘s Kodi Smit-McPhee), a lonely outcast who can see and speak with dead spirits, Fell and Butler elongate the screen, packing the frame with visual richness, the likes of which most animated films tend to skimp on.  Norman’s hometown looks like the funhouse version of every slightly decrepit New England hamlet from Rhode Island through New Hampshire, and its ghostly denizens float through the environment on green contrails of ectoplasm (my favorite is the deceased skydiver whose ethereal parachute has stranded her in a tree for all eternity).  The woods are a burst of autumnal red and gold, and the trees loom like specters more menacing than the zombie forces that Norman unwittingly unleashes.  Better still: Norman’s battle against the evil plaguing his town, a hyperkinetic battle royale that fragment the forest into something resembling a supernova just outside the rings of Saturn.

All of these wonders, and all held together by a deliberately off-center aesthetic that makes every line crooked and every angle dutch.  I thought of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari while watching ParaNorman; I also thought of John Carpenter and George Romero and – in its lush color scheme and Jon Brion’s Goblin-inspired score – Dario Argento.  Forget Shrek: as a horror-movie junkie, these are the kinds of pop-culture touchstones that I vibrate to, and for that reason alone, I think I enjoyed ParaNorman more than most.

For everyone else, ParaNorman still works, even if it’s operating on a more surface level than Coraline.  Shallow is only bad when it’s shallow and offensive, and ParaNorman never stoops to the level of an Ice Age: Continental Drift or a Shark Tale.  It never trots out a celebrity cameo just for the sake of trotting out a celebrity cameo (folks like Elaine Stritch, Jeff Garlin, and John Goodman actually play characters, and not wink-wink versions of themselves); it never tosses in spectacle just to show off its effects budget; and it never – repeat: never – panders to the kid crowd.  Our heroes might make it to the end alive, but there’s enough residual darkness to suggest how close things got.

Ultimately, I responded strongest to the film’s (gentle) realism.  ParaNorman trots out an old standard – learning to like who you are – but it throws in enough wrinkles to leaven the clichés.   The film’s attitude towards its characters is refreshingly nonchalant; everyone, from Christopher Mintz-Plasse attention-seeking bully, to Tucker Albrizzi’s whimsically laconic fat kid, to Casey Affleck’s muscle-bound jock (who gets the biggest laugh of the film with one underplayed  – and amazingly progressive – aside), is okay with who they are, plain and simple – their quirks comprise  but one facet of their shared humanity.  In fact, the alienation that Norman feels stems from his self-imposed exile.  He assumes that others will reject him because of his gift, and so he removes himself from the people around him.

That goes double for ParaNorman‘s ultimate villain.  In its final stretch, the picture eschews pitting Norman against a more conventional baddie in favor of…well, see for yourself.  Without going too far into spoilers, let’s just say that from a distance, evil might seem monstrous, but up close it’s as fragile and short-sighted and desperate and tragic as we all are.

Seen in that light, maybe “good” isn’t so bad after all.  ParaNorman isn’t Coraline, but it’s still a more-than worthy successor, and a reminder that the best family fare cares about people, living or undead.

Universal’s Blu-ray edition is a marvel.  Textures are clean and sharp, and the image has so many subtle gradations – when a ghost passes across a room, the focus changes as the spirit ripples and undulates.  The soundtrack is one of those 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio jobs that roars and booms.  It’s immersive and effective.

Features are quite substantial.  We get a commentary with Butler and Fell; the forty-minute, nine-part documentary “Peering Through the Veil”; seven mini-featurettes covering additional behind-the-scenes topics (“You Don’t Become a Hero by Being Normal,” “A Norman Childhood,” “Playing as a Profession,” “Making Norman,” “This Little Light,” “Have You Ever Seen a Ghost,” and “The Zombies of ParaNorman”); and three animatic sequences.

If more kids movies were like ParaNorman, we wouldn’t be worried about the youth of America.  Without ignoring thrills or humor, the film manages to smuggle in real insight and heart; this is a family film in the truest sense of the phrase.

ParaNorman is now available on Blu-ray.  Click HERE for Amazon’s listing.