What I’m Watching
I took Helen to see ParaNorman this afternoon and was completely blown away by it.
The trailers looked interesting, but really only gave up the movie’s basic premise — the title character, Norman, can talk to the dead. And having seen Studio Laika’s previous film, Coraline, done in the same style — 100% hand-built, constructed objects and sets filmed entirely in stop-motion — and absolutely loving it, ParaNorman was on my “to watch” list simply because I was interested in sitting through another movie that looked like Coraline.
Coraline is one of my favorite movies; it’s a beautiful movie to look at, and knowing that every single thing you see on screen is an actual constructed object makes it that much more fun to take in. Neil Gaiman’s story is very good, as well — a girl who feels alone after being moved to a distant place by her relocated parents and then feels shut out as they don’t seem to have time for her discovers a parallel universe populated by Other Versions of the people around her that may be real or may exist entirely in her imagination. It’s a fantastic movie — I bought the BluRay the day it was released and have watched it repeatedly.
ParaNorman is a similar film to Coraline in many respects, visually, obviously, and thematically. But what the trailers don’t show is how incredibly dark this film is. It’s hinted that it’s in the vein of “kid talks to the dead; fun hijinx ensue,” but that couldn’t be further from the truth. This is a parable about the dangers of joining in with a crowd that is reacting to something unknown out of fear, and, similar Coraline, has a misunderstood kid as the protagonist. But, due to his talent for speaking with the dead, ParaNorman‘s Norman is a complete outcast from society — friendless, and not fitting even in his own family. The first five minutes or so of the film, which establish Norman’s character and introduce us to his family, are downright sad. When the film delivers the key moment in that scene, it’s gut-wrenching, and you immediately realize how difficult it must be to be Norman.
During the adventure that follows once the premise is established, the film uses the corpse of Norman’s dead uncle and a neatly bisected dog as comic relief, which should be all the indication you need of what I meant earlier when I called this a dark movie. Bullies, Norman’s cheerleader sister, a friend or two and, eventually, zombies, join the story, and we’re off on an incredibly satisfying journey.
That adventure leads to a spectacular conclusion, made even moreso when you realize that everything on screen is hand-built and there aren’t any special effects or computer imagery used to jazz up the scene. The settings are amazingly intricate, with incredibly diverse and detailed backgrounds, and there are brilliant smoke effects. Finally, without giving anything away, the film’s antagonist is downright terrifying. One of the great moments in Coraline was in the conclusion when it got tense and the Other Mother turned into the spider to pursue Coraline through the alternate universe. There’s no character transformation here, but everything about the antagonist is legitimately scary — how it moves, how it sounds, how it looks. First, it’s a fantastic achievement in character design, and second, all of the elements that have to work together to make it a terrifying on-screen creation all work. They just work.
This isn’t one of those movies-for-kids that throws in references to Thundercats and the Atari 2600 and has double entendres scattered throughout at just the right intervals to make sure the grownups who brought their kids stay interested. This is a movie for grownups, with messages about the consequences of dismissing things you don’t understand — particularly when those things revolve around your children — and the dangers of the herd mentality. It’s an adult movie that’s acceptable to bring your children to.
I can’t possibly recommend this movie highly enough. It seems like one of those movies that’s going to be here-and-gone in the theaters pretty quickly, so if you’ve given this film any thought at all — and, really, even if you haven’t — get to the theaters and see it. ParaNorman is a movie that deserves to be seen.