This is my first viewing of Paranorman. I missed the theatrical screening circuit and I don’t yet have kids of my own to take to the cinemas, but that really shouldn’t have stopped me. Paranorman is exactly my kind of movie.
Norman (Kodi Smit-McPhee) has a supernatural gift introduced so subtly I could not believe the movie went there. It’s almost like the miscarriage montage in Up, though I still have to hand that one to Pixar. If you’ve seen any trailer or have deduced from the title, Norman has the ability to speak with the dead. It starts with ghosts but expands later.
For the first act or so, I didn’t really care about the caper in which Norman gets involved, but there are enough touching moments where he uses his gift that I was on board. A recently departed spirit warns Norman of an impending doom only he has the power to prevent, so Norman has to find the book to stop the curse and monsters legends blah blah blah. I’ll take any MacGuffin though. The joy and the burden of Norman’s gift is executed perfectly and it only gets better from there.
The monster action is brilliant and when Norman puts a gang of neighborhood kids together, they each react with endearing signature characteristics. It’s Scooby gang schtick but it’s really good Scooby gang schtick. Being animated, they play slapstick really hard, and with an irreverence worthy of “The Simpsons.” Still, even in its busiest section, Paranorman has time for quiet moments and those are its greatest strength. It’s really edgy too. The kids make pretty overt references to hormonal desires, which gives it an added punch. This movie is for kids but it’s like the cool kids snuck you into it without your parents’ permission.
However, there is a turning point where Paranorman stops being an endearing monster spoof and speaks to a curse of human foibles that plagues us all. The curse is in fact a metaphor for something few of us can claim we’ve overcome. This raises the stakes tremendously. It’s a lot harder to calm people’s fears than it would be to just get the right spell and stop the witch. Now we’re dealing with cycles of violence, bullying, topics that do come up in family entertainment, but Paranorman gives it the valuable sense that there are no easy answers, and resolution is really hard to earn. But look, I’m a spiritual guy so that’s what I dig.
On Blu-ray the film looks gorgeous. I don’t have a 3D TV but it still looks 3D to me. The depth of the model town is tactile and it’s so clear you can see all the way through to the furthest shot in the back. The entire film is flawless, there’s not one bad shot in 90 minutes. The macabre colors green and purple come to life and you’ll see all the detail in the sets and characters. Since it’s stop motion models, details of fabric or facial ticks are all the more palpable.
A 40-minute behind the scenes documentary covers everything from the specifically technical (how many hairs on a Norman head, 3D printed faces, etc.) to the standard fluff piece of actors recording their voices. These are really well presented bonus features that convey the technical world in layman’s terms, but don’t talk down to kids. I’m just a little cynical myself. I’ve covered so many animated movies over the last 13 years and it’s always the same anecdotes. Hair is really hard to do, they video tape the actors to capture their mannerisms, every single time. I’ve also watched DVDs for 15 years and all those behind the scenes features are the same too, but for the first few years, it was all new information and this will be all new information to some kids today.
I do think stop motion animation is much more interesting behind the scenes though. There are several time-lapse footage sequences from behind the scenes, and watching sped up frames of people spending hours on single frames is awesome. You basically see the animation happen on stage, with all the filmmakers popping in and out a frame at a time.
A collection of featurettes produced by the animation studio Laika are cute, not really informative but heartfelt. The animators talk about being outcasts, they bring their kids in, and these are all short promotional items. Some animatics show extended sequences, and how they use drawings to prep for stop-motion (again, I’ve seen animatics on every DVD for 15 years).
Directors Chris Butler and Sam Fell give a good commentary. They’re talking to adults here, about technical achievements, thematic debates and artistic inspirations. Therefore kids will appreciate it and easily be able to follow along the conversation.
I’m just profoundly in awe of Paranorman. I knew it would be high quality and I knew it was generally well liked, but I’d say it’s more Pixar than most Pixar movies. It’s got a style all its own, but a storytelling depth that gives you something beautiful in every scene. You’re either watching something outstanding or Paranorman is making you think it and feel it.
Follow Fred Topel on Twitter at @FredTopel.