Review: ParaNorman (2012)

Directors: Chris Butler, Sam Fell

****

(This review originally appeared on Ramp.ie)

It’s a truism that kids love to be scared. It’s surprising, however, that filmmakers don’t take advantage of this fact more often. Tapping into children’s fears gave us the terrific likes of Coraline, Monster House and now ParaNorman. If parents are usually reluctant to bring their kids to animated movies, they’ll at least get a sadistic laugh as the little’uns squirm; ParaNormanis surprisingly creepy for a younger audience. However, it’s also disarmingly good-natured and reverent to its inspirations.

We’ve had family films based around vampires, witches and the like, but ParaNorman may well be the first one based around zombies (by way of witches). If anything, ParaNorman has a few too many sources of inspiration. Norman (voiced by Kodi Smit-McPhee) is a horror geek, and is also blessed/cursed by the ability to see and communicate with the spirits of the dead. It turns out this ability makes him the only one able to stop some witch-cursed zombie from destroying his hometown. On paper, mashing The Sixth Sense, George A. Romero and stop-motion animation could be an almighty mess, but writer/co-director Chris Butler knows too much about animation and horror to allow him to fall into the traps.

Having worked on both Coraline and Corpse Bride, Butler’s clearly keen to give ParaNorman a definitive look, and to keep it away from stripey Tim Burton-esque faux goth. Under Butler and Sam Fell’s direction, ParaNorman gets a warm and bright look, reminiscent of mid-90’s Nickelodeon output. This extends to some funny yet distinctive character design. Norman and his friend Neil (Tucker Albrizzi) are fun little fellas, and Norman’s bitchy sister Courtney (Anna Kendrick) and school bully Alvin (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) are frequently hilarious foils for our young heroes. The zombies themselves are kid-pleasingly gross, but reveal a backstory much creepier than first appearances allow. Their memorability is secured with some good voice work (Casey Affleck as Neil’s jock brother is a neat piece of counter-intuitive casting) and some great gags and one-liners. Norman’s encounter with a dead man’s tongue rates about a 9.0 on the gross-o-meter.

ParaNorman name-checks its numerous influences frequently and in many ways. This includes scenes of violence that bump it perilously close to the 12A rating (bonus points to anyone who spots the reference to video nasty favourite Cannibal Apocalypse). Kids may wonder why their parents are laughing at Norman’s mobile ringtone, but then another character will say something silly or a zombie will go ‘BOO’ and the balance will be restored. Even if it’s a little too busy making its reference-driven plot work, ParaNorman will keep all ages engaged with colourful animation and engaging characters. It’s made by horror fans with horror fans in mind, both young and old.

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