Friday, August 17, 2012

I See Some Very Funny Dead People: “ParaNorman”

Film Review by Maggie Hames
You know what’s wrong with this world? According to Norman of the animated film ParaNorman, people just don’t listen. And he should know, because nobody listens like Norman; it’s just that the door doesn’t swing the other way for him. Norman sees (and hears, and relates to, and jokes with) dead people in a parody of M. Night Shymalan’s 1999 mega-hit The Sixth Sense. But few people (dead or alive) lend him a sympathetic ear, with the exception of his recently-deceased grandmother, wonderfully voiced by Elaine Stritch. Kodi Smit-McPhee delivers a terrific and nuanced performance as Norman in this Chris Butler and Sam Fell directed film.

Elaine Stritch as Norman's grandmother
The very funny and knowing script by Butler speaks to the dilemma of outsider and bullied kids with a spot-on clarity. Some of the references (including the primary source material, The Sixth Sense) may be outside the wheelhouse of this film’s primary and natural audience, tweens. But it isn’t outside YOUR wheelhouse as parents. Grown-ups will understand and revel in the knowing references to classic horror/slasher/and zombie films but young kids won’t know the source material so they can’t really be in on the best jokes. And there is a risk youngsters could find some of the “classic” horror imagery genuinely scary. Only you can judge what your child can handle. But I’ll bet every self-respecting tween and teen will love this, as long as they’re not too cool for animated films; and if they are, their loss!

Norman, his parents, and teen princess sister (nicely voiced by Anna Kendrick, but I could have done without the stereotypical cheerleader/mean girl cliché) live in a neighborhood “peopled” by ghosts from many eras. Only Norman can see them, and it has made him a freak at home and at school. As he wipes the scrawled “freak” from his locker with a rag and bottle of cleaner he keeps in his locker, we immediately know that this is his daily ritual. Down the hall, another boy Neil (voiced by Tucker Albrizzi) is wiping the word “fatty” from his locker. The life of a bullied middle-schooler is its own brand of horror story. Neil and Norman become friends, mostly at Neil’s funny and touching insistence.

Tucker Albrizzi is Neil
Everyone lives in the town of Blithe Hollow, a send-up of Salem, Massachusetts. Blithe Hollow is a tourist trap that sells souvenirs based on its history as the site of a seventeenth century witch hanging. It seems this witch cursed the seven townsfolk who condemned her and the anniversary of her death is quickly approaching. If something isn’t done, the witch may rise again. Norman’s own “weirdo” uncle, very nicely voiced by John Goodman, has been keeping the demons at bay for years; and now it’s Norman’s turn to pick up the torch, so to speak.

There’s some very funny work from Casey Affleck as a meathead/hunk and Neil’s big brother, Mitch. Leslie Mann is mom Sandra but doesn’t have much to do here. Christopher Mintz-Plasse is a stereotypical school bully, a wholesale borrow from The Simpsons, but funny nonetheless. It’s rated PG for scary action and images, thematic elements, some rude humor and language. For my money, viewers need to be comfortable with the thematic issues of death of family members and ideas about life after death to enjoy this film. For those who are old enough, this film is witty and wise. The stop-action animation is stupendous. These figures really do walk the earth.

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