Last summer, J.J. Abrams and Steven Spielberg made a big deal out of paying homage to old Spielberg movies from the late ’70s and early ’80s with Super 8. The film was a clunky, retro-cinematic love letter so self-conscious in its karaoke shot selections, it eventually felt suffocating. The screenplay also didn’t make much sense, not to mention it was a little gross watching Spielberg participate in a masturbatory tribute to himself.
ParaNorman, the wondrous new stop-motion animated feature from Laika (the studio that brought us Coraline a few years back) doesn’t feel like it’s trying to replicate the atmosphere of those early Amblin’ Entertainment pictures, at least not as strenuously as Abrams did. ParaNorman captures that magic on its own terms. This is a rousing boy’s adventure full of big scares, goofy humor and a pointed message. Perhaps the best way to sell you on this picture is to say it’s sort of like what The Goonies might’ve been, had The Goonies been beautifully animated and not terrible.
Kodi Smit-McPhee voices the title character, Norman Babcock, a lonely adolescent with a Chia Pet hairdo who loves watching crummy old horror movies with his grandmother (Elaine Stritch). The only problem is that grandma’s been deceased for quite some time. Like Haley Joel Osment in The Sixth Sense, Norman sees dead people, and they’re everywhere. The swift economy with which screenwriter Chris Butler, who codirected with Sam Fell, lays out this initial conceit is almost breathtaking, culminating in a gorgeously rendered walk to school during which Norman shoots the breeze with ghosts from nearly every generation. (My favorite was the 1930s gangster in cement shoes.)
Unfortunately, actual living people aren’t as interested in Norman’s company. He’s taunted mercilessly by the school bully (Christopher Mintz-Plasse, thugging up the McLovin-isms) while his parents (Jeff Garlin and Leslie Mann) worry that their kid might need some serious help. Even Norman’s ditzy teenage sister Courtney (a very funny Anna Kendrick) thinks he’s a weirdo. His only real-life friend is fat goofy Neil (Tucker Albrizzi), who believes wholeheartedly in Norman’s supernatural gifts, but maybe that’s just because Neil likes the idea of somebody being able to play fetch with his dead dog.
ParaNorman is set in the fictional town of Blithe Hollow, a hilarious stand-in for Salem, where the entire economy revolves around shamelessly marketing centuries-old witch trials in order to sell chintzy collectibles and bumper stickers. Yet, the thing is, there really is a witch haunting Blithe Hollow, and because of some balderdash about a curse and a book, suddenly she’s got the dead rising from their graves and roaming the streets. Finally, Norman’s gift can come in handy.
It’s unfair to reveal too much, as the delight of Butler’s screenplay lies in the sharp left turns and unanticipated angles. Safe to say that Norman, Courtney, Neil and Neil’s hunky, dim-witted brother (Casey Affleck) end up in a Scooby Doo van pursued by zombies for a few bravura action sequences. But even then, maybe those zombies aren’t exactly what they seem at first glance.
That’s the tricky, unexpectedly thoughtful thing about ParaNorman. The movie keeps upending your expectations and urging you to look beyond the surface. As we know, witch trials were all about snap judgments and scapegoating, and parallels are played out in the film’s increasingly chaotic and surprising second half. ParaNorman eventually becomes a weirdly trenchant laceration of mob mentality. Bullies are everywhere, and in a rare moment of wisdom, dopey Neil points out that if he were only thinner and better looking, he’d probably be a bully, too.
A visual marvel, seeing ParaNorman in 3-D is actually worth the painful surcharge, as these quaint, handcrafted puppets have been seamlessly combined with state-of-the-art CGI to make a movie that looks both cutting edge and antique at the same time. I also loved Butler and Fell’s commitment to the Spielbergian technique of shooting scenes from a child’s point of view, which means we’re eye-level with a lot of pot bellies and fat asses most of the time.
A good deal tougher and more intense than your typical kiddie fare, ParaNorman earns its scares with a progressive message of inclusivity that frankly left this reviewer taken aback. There are a couple of doozy plot twists, and also one throwaway that guarantees the picture will never score a merchandising tie-in deal with Chick-fil-A. It’s a gutsy move. Gutsy movie, too.
With the voices of Kodi Smit-McPhee, Tucker Albrizzi, Anna Kendrick, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Casey Affleck, Leslie Mann, Jeff Garlin and Elaine Stritch. Written by Chris Butler. Directed by Chris Butler and Sam Fell. At Boston Common, Fenway and in the suburbs.