Chris Butler and Sam Fell’s ParaNorman is a two-sided experience, but the good — the astonishing, wistfully flavored stop-motion animation from the folks at LAIKA (2009′s Coraline) — is so good, and the bad — some confused third-act story beats — is only moderately bad. One of the capabilities of accomplished animation — like that of accomplished 3D, which is also an element of this film — is that, through the artistic freshness, it can tempt you to overlook primary narrative concerns that would be back-breaking in a more conventionally mounted production. Such is the case with ParaNorman.
It also helps that the film has a pretty nifty main character — a spiky-haired middle-schooler named Norman Babcock (voiced by Kodi Smit-McPhee). Norman, as we quickly learn via the film’s terrific opening, has the ability to communicate with green-tinted spirits of the recently deceased. For instance, in the story’s very first moments, Norman watches a cheesy horror flick with his grandmother (Elaine Stritch) — he eating popcorn only inches away from the television set, and she, less enthusiastically, seated on the living-room couch — and we’re informed, by the scene’s end, that this woman is actually dead.
In the kitchen, Norman’s parents (Jeff Garlin and Leslie Mann) grow increasingly worried over their son’s supernatural ability, and if the simple pleasure of digesting a zombie movie with one’s (albeit passed-away) grandma seems harmless enough, we get a better sense of the extent of Norman’s preoccupation the next morning, as he chats people up on his way to school — and we can’t see a single one of them. Butler and Fell, however, eventually reveal their hand, and, suddenly, ghostly figures appear everywhere — in trees, on the sidewalk, riding on horseback. These are Norman’s friends.
At school — and even at home, with his pink-clothed sister (Anna Kendrick) insulting him with the irritating voice of a cheerleader — it’s a different story. Bullies such as Christopher Mintz-Plasse’s Alvin pick on Norman and spray insults like the word “freak” all over his hallway locker. Norman’s psychic visions, meanwhile, are growing more and more distracting, upping his outsider status even further. He has a partial companion in the affably chunky Neil (Tucker Albrizzi), another of the school’s misfits, but Norman prefers to deal with his misgivings in private, and tells Neil as much during one of their first encounters.
This day-in-the-life stuff is terrific, not only in the sense that Smit-McPhee’s softly angelic voice makes for an instantly adorable personality, but also because the atmospherically eager direction of Butler and Fell is allowed the most wiggle room when the overarching conflict — which, somewhat annoyingly, includes witches and age-old curses and other rudimentary drivel — isn’t yet addressed. Consider an early interaction in the school bathroom between Norman and his deranged uncle, Mr. Prenderghast (John Goodman), that maintains a good ten minutes of screen time, most of which is filled by canted angles, jagged sound design, and marvelously unbalanced interaction between background and foreground.
Even outside of Goodman’s crazed loon, Butler’s screenplay is mostly wise enough to evade specific conflict. For a good block of the middle section, ParaNorman borrows the retro spirit of its opening and plays like a delightfully haunting monster movie. This section of the film, marked by the introduction of Mitch (Casey Affleck, awesome), Neil’s muscular older brother, is carried by the amplification of what made the first third so satisfying. Instead of a creaky bathroom door, we get a petrified forest that shoots spiky branches at our gang of characters with unnerving frequency. (If you haven’t guessed as much by now, the film may be a touch dark for some youngsters. The infant at my showing didn’t last an hour.)
Later in the film, we get flashbacks and forced conflict, and it’s much less enjoyable. But even in the weakest narrative moments, the animation wins you over, as does the consistent humor. And it speaks to the directorial skill that the comedy here is as much a result of visual composition as it is of quippy one-liners. There’s a shot early in the film positioned at Norman’s eye level, with his towering parents sandwiching him in between them as they argue about his sixth-sense capacity. Their heads are out of frame, and all we recognize is the protrusion of Garlin’s animated belly inching closer and closer to Norman’s sideburns with each passing second. It’s the kind of shot that makes you aware of a certain savviness behind the camera.
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