In an age of computer generated animation, stop motion is still considered to be a struggling art form. Despite the fact that he’s directed critically acclaimed films in the process (with modest box-office success), Henry Selick, director of The Nightmare Before Christmas and most recently Coraline, just had his latest project canceled by Disney studios. As long as you have a good story to tell, just about any animation process is a work of art in itself and still relevant in cinema. No studio believes in that stronger than Laika, responsible for Selick’s Coraline and behind the latest stop-motion animation feature Paranorman. Though debuting co-director Chris Butler, (paired with Flushed Away director Sam Fell) lacks Selick’s experience, his film is not without good intentions and a very welcome attempt to stray from, forgive the pun, “the norm”.
Born with the gift to see and communicate with the dead, obsessed horror movie nut Norman (Kodi Smit-McPhee) is an outcast amongst fellow kids at school and even his family. His dad (Jeff Garlin) refuses to believe the boy spends time on the sofa watching TV with the ghost of his grandmother and his cheerleader sister (Anna Kendrick) sees him as a waste of space she’s embarrassed to be related to. Then there’s the bullying Alvin (Christopher Mintz-Plasse), who constantly picks on the eccentric Norman, even though he’s somewhat of a dimwit himself. The only person who identifies with Norman’s supernatural ability and the burden he carries is crazy Uncle Prenderghast (John Goodman) who unfortunately croaks, just as he’s about to warn the boy of a rising evil due to a 300 year old curse.
It takes a bit for Paranorman to get rolling since the story moves at a pace as clunky as the supporting characters who are slow to realize that the dead have begun to rise and Norman isn’t the only one who can see them. The story is packed with plenty of characters just as eccentric as Norman, many of them forming an angry mob, ready to combat the living dead. Their actions are revealed to be foolish as the story reveals dozens of morals ranging from prejudice to bullying and the consequences of passing judgment on the misunderstood. For much of its first hour, Paranorman feels like a good idea not properly executed, with a focus on colorful characters and humor. Norman’s self-appointed best friend and fellow outcast Neil (Tucker Albrizzi) proves to be quite a hoot though. Late in the story, the film takes a surprising and welcome dark turn, a bold move that major studios would no doubt shy away from out of fear of alienating audiences.
Paranorman may be a comedic fantasy geared at adults and children, but the subject of death is consistently revisited in a dramatic fashion and feels more real that a production featuring live, flesh and blood actors. It’s no easy task to introduce story elements concerning tragedy into a animated family film and Laika along with writers Butler and Arianne Sutner & Steven Stone should be commended for having the guts to do so. The animation is naturally first-rate and even further enhanced by the 3D process. It’s the filmmakers’ bold attempt to create a film that strays away from basic storytelling that makes this one a memorable experience and work of art that will undoubtedly find an audience and even endure.