Every now and then some article will pop up bemoaning the loss of all forms of animation other than CGI in feature film these days. Yet, while 2D hand-drawn animation has indeed died down outside of Japan and Europe, it’s all too easy to ignore the fact that stop motion animation is not just kicking, but thriving. This year alone we already got Aardman Animation’s latest creation Pirates! Band of Misfits, Tim Burton’s Frankenweenie is on the way, and this week sees the release of the fan-damn-tastic Paranorman. There have never been that many stop motion flicks released by major studios in such quick succession and the quality level is surprisingly high. Paranorman comes from the stop-motion gurus at Laika who last produced Coraline. While a far fluffier endeavor, directors Chris Butler and Sam Fell have created this obscenely charming ode to 80s era horror and teen comedy that reminds viewers of a time when kids were permitted to enjoy the unsanitized genre kicks of movies like The Monster Squad or Poltergeist. For anyone who grew up on that brand of “children’s” entertainment, Paranorman offers nostalgic bliss and hopefully it will help corrupt/inspire the minds of a new generation of monster-loving tykes. And of course the animation is pretty incredible, but with Laika that was a given.
Our tale takes place in Blithe Hollow, a clear Salem, Massachusetts stand in that once burned witches at the stake (one particular witch was even kind enough to curse the town) and now trades in its bloody past for a horror-centric tourist trade. You’d think that town would be a perfect place for Norman (Kodi Smit-McPhee), a young boy so obsessed with horror movies that his room is a horror museum and even his ringtone is the theme from John Carpenter’s Halloween. Yet, Norman is shunned by his father (Jeff Garlin), ditzy sister (Anna Kendrick) and, well, the entire town other than his single chubby outcast friend Neil (Tucker Albrizzi). Actually, there is a reason for that beyond his morbid pop culture obsessions and spiky hairdo: Norman sees dead people. The town is filled with ghosts and while Norman is friends with all of them, anyone he tells about it tends to hate him. One day a seemingly crazy homeless man (John Goodman) tells Norman that he can see the spirits too and Norman will soon have to assume the mantle as the town’s undead protector. You see, that witch’s curse was real and when Norman screws up his protecting duties, zombies rise from the grave and the witch promises to destroy the Blithe Hollow. Suddenly, all of Blithe Hollow might not be so skeptical of little Norman.
From the opening sequence that lovingly plays homage to a slice of cheesy 80s horror, it’s clear that co-directors Chris Butler (who also scripted) and Sam Fell love this genre. The film is filled with in-jokes to please others who grew up like Norman while also introducing new young audiences to joys of being safely scared at the movies. This kiddie horror romp is refreshingly undiluted, offering some genuine scares that will work on youngsters (and even their parents, if they are willing to admit it). Inevitably some overanxious parent/church groups might complain, but the thing is that most kids love this stuff (there’s a reason why The Wicked Witch Of The West remains so popular) and for the first time in years they’ll get a chance to be spooked in a theater (along with plenty of clever and/or poopy scatological gags to make it go down smoothly). Beyond the strong genre thrills and humor, the film has a soft gooey center with a sweet message about accepting outsiders that should speak directly to the type of child who will eat up this movie. It’s never hammered over the head by the writers either, but woven skillfully into the surreal nightmare climax. Ultimately, this movie might be about sheer entertainment, but Butler and Fell squeezed in just enough of a moral to give their tale substance without losing sight of the crowd-pleasing requirements.
As is now standard practice in animated fare, the voice cast is filled with recognizable actors like Goodman, Garlin and Leslie Mann. Yet, The real voice gems come when the directors cleverly cast against type and allows Christopher Mintz-Plasse to play a bully, Anna Kendrick to play a valley girl, or Casey Affleck to play a dopy jock and they are all hysterical in roles they could never do in live action. Laika’s animation is of course incredible, bringing the surreal movie to life with zombies, witches, and monsters cute enough for the cartoon aesthetic and gooey enough to get the required scares.
From top to bottom, Paranorman is a little genre gem for longtime fans and pint-sized newcomers. Sure, not all of the gags land, but Butler, Fell and company get so much right that all flaws are excusable. This is an animated film that refuses to talk down to children, packs in more entertainment value than should be legally allowed, and actually has something to say to the impressionable viewers. All that and it didn’t come from Pixar either. See, there’s still hope to be found in this animation game after all. Well, just as long as the words Ice Age are nowhere near the title anyways.