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Review: ParaNorman (2012)

ParaNorman (2012)

Directed by: Chris Butler & Sam Fell

Premise: An animated feature about a boy (voice of Kodi Smit-McPhee) who can see ghosts. When a curse unleashes zombies it is up to the young man to save his town.

What Works: ParaNorman is a fun and smart animated film that manages to merge horror and comedy together. Like other successful combinations of frights and humor such as The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 and Evil Dead 2, the filmmakers of ParaNorman locate both the laughs and the screams in the same moments, using one to amplify the other. The picture sides more heavily on laughter than on terror but that is fine as the film is in part about the pleasure that horror fans find in their favorite genre. The picture intelligently subverts and dissects the horror genre, making light of the appeal of horror and referencing famous horror pictures. It also picks apart the underlying functions of horror stories for individuals and for the culture. In particular it explores the way that horror films simultaneously intensify and appease the savage and irrational parts of ourselves.  In this respect, ParaNorman treads in the same territory as this year’s The Cabin in the Woods, although ParaNorman is by far a better, smarter, and more satisfying film. The themes of ParaNorman are supported by a visual style that is distinguished among recent animated films. The animated features coming out of Hollywood lately have been very safe stories done in computer animation, which gives the visuals a plastic and sterile look. ParaNorman mixes digital effects with stop-motion animation in ways that play to the strengths of each format; the stop-motion charms the viewer and gives the characters and settings an organic look while the digital elements allow for scope and dynamic visuals. The combination gives ParaNorman a winning style that works for the picture and allows the filmmakers to create visuals that are rich and unique. The distinct visual style of the film is matched by a compelling story. ParaNorman has interesting characters and even while many of them exist within the confines of familiar high school stereotypes the characters are real enough to transcend those stereotypes. The picture really picks up in its climax in which the story pushes into dark and intense territory. In these final scenes the film brings the visual style, the thematic agendas, and the character development and plotting to a satisfying finale that manages significant emotional renascence and even a degree of profundity.

What Doesn’t: ParaNorman may not be the picture that some viewers expect it to be based on the promotional materials that the studio has used to market the film. It is not as dark or as serious as Monster House or Coraline and it is geared much more toward family audiences. The intended family audience of the film is somewhat problematic for ParaNorman since a lot of gags rely on references to R-rated horror films and these jokes might be too esoteric for general audiences. Although ParaNorman is more comedic than horrific, the film has a macabre sensibility and the laughs are more likely to elicit cynical snickers than belly laughs.

Bottom Line: ParaNorman is a very good animated film. It is smart with appropriate scares and jokes and it is much better than many of the animated pictures released recently by major Hollywood animation studios.

Episode: #403 (September 2, 2012)