Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Paranorman (Movie Review)

Paranorman (Focus Features.  Written and Directed by Sam Fell and Chris Butler)

2012 promises to be a banner year for animated horror-comedies, with the scheduled release of films such as Hotel Transylvania and Frankenweenie.  But the first one to hit theaters, the charmingly macabre Paranorman, just might prove to be the best of the bunch.

The film centers on Norman Babcock, whose Sixth Sense-like ability to see dead people leaves him one ridiculed and outcast pre-teen in his hometown of Blithe (echoes of Sleepy) Hollow.  A much greater appreciation for Norman grows, though, when the boy's talents are needed to help save the town from the curse of a zombie-raising witch.

Paranorman features several stand-out elements, starting with its endearing, ghost-whispering protagonist, who sports Kodi Smit-McPhee's voice and seemingly Vanilla Ice's hairdo and Alfred E. Neuman's ears (other inspired voice work is provided by Christopher Mintz-Plasse as the nasally bully Alvin and Casey Affleck as the musclebound doofus Mitch).  Understated but scene-stealing comic relief comes from Norman's friend Neil, the best chubby sidekick since Monster House's Chowder.  The film presents viewers with fantastic, brilliantly colorful stop-action animation (e.g. the image of a leering witch visage in a roiling magenta sky), courtesy of LAIKA, the artful folks behind Coraline.  And how can you not love a movie that includes an angry-villager scene that hearkens back to the halcyon days of Universal Studios?

I seem to be referencing a lot of other films in this review, and that is probably no accident.  The various witty references to other horror genre fare form a large part of Paranorman's fun. (I, for one, was sold on buying a ticket for this one the first time I saw the bit in the trailer involving a masked Neil striking a Michael Myers pose in Norman's backyard.)

The movie conveys a strong anti-bullying/acceptance-of-difference message, and its monsters are ultimately rendered as innocuous as possible, but with some of the intense action sequences here, the label of "children's film" becomes a bit dubious (I heard at least one youngster wailing in fright in the theater).  But for everyone else older in years and with more experience with cinematic fear, Paranorman is bound to be enormously entertaining.

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