Middle school and zombies? Awwwkward!
By Sean O’Connell
Friday, August 17, 2012
“I see dead people.” Thirteen years have passed (almost to the day) since young Haley Joel Osment whispered his confession to a stunned Bruce Willis in “The Sixth Sense,” sending chills down our collective spines.
But what if the supernatural premise behind M. Night Shyamalan’s ghostly thriller inspired monstrous laughs instead of scares?
Then you’d have “ParaNorman,” a colorfully macabre stop-motion animation comedy that embraces the sociopolitical allegories of George A. Romero’s zombie pictures and reworks them into a feature-length episode of “Scooby-Doo.”
“ParaNorman” creeps and crawls out of the mind of writer/co-director Chris Butler, a storyboard artist who honed his skills on Tim Burton’s “Corpse Bride” and Henry Selick’s “Coraline.” It’s no wonder, then, that when Butler receives free rein to tell his own story, he comes up with a spooky, creature-infested campfire story laced with valuable lessons about teamwork, responsibility, courage and the celebration of our inner outcast.
That last trait is personified by Norman (Kodi Smit-McPhee), a quiet and unassuming middle-schooler who happens to be able to converse with the dead. On his daily walk to school, Norman interacts with long-dead gangsters wearing concrete shoes, a parachuted pilot hanging in a tree and a crushed animal the rest of us would recognize as roadkill. These restless spirits are far kinder to Norman, though, than the school bullies -- led by a pea-brained ox named Alvin (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) -- who ostracize our hero simply because he’s different.
Even casual moviegoers understand that something larger has to threaten Norman’s semi-peaceful existence, giving him the opportunity to apply his precious gift and save the day. In the case of “ParaNorman,” we learn of a centuries-old curse cast by disgruntled witch Aggie (Jodelle Ferland) against the heretics in Norman’s town.
For years, the witch’s spell had been kept at bay by Norman’s crazy uncle (John Goodman). But when he mysteriously passes away, it’s up to Norman, his perturbed older sister (Anna Kendrick) and his mild-mannered best friend (Tucker Albrizzi) to quell a zombie uprising and grant Aggie her final wish.
Two passions drive Butler and his co-director, Sam Fell. The first is stop-motion animation, a painstaking creative process that’s arduous for the animators -- a three-minute sequence can take up to a year to film -- but ensures that each scene is carefully considered as it’s constructed. Rarely does one find trim-worthy fat in a stop-motion film.
Butler and Fell’s other passion, however, is horror, and they aren’t afraid to invigorate their animated adventure with unnerving nods to the gory genre. After a creaky start, “ParaNorman” comes to life once the dead rise. Zombies stomp, trees throw dagger branches, purple-faced clouds loom, and this roller-coaster ride through an expertly crafted house of terrors culminates with an unfortunately busy finale, where Norman confronts Aggie, the misunderstood witch.
Too scary for the youngest in your family? Probably. Parents, proceed with caution.
“ParaNorman,” in fact, belongs on the short list of animated fables that aim most of their messages at grown-ups rather than kids. Adults will cheer Norman’s mature effort to accept his supernatural heritage. They’ll jeer Mintz-Plasse’s bully and chuckle at a brainless quarterback (Casey Affleck) with a secret to keep. And they’ll nod, solemnly, during a telling scene near the end of “ParaNorman” where the zombies lurch through Norman’s town, absorb examples of our society’s mind-numbing pop culture and cower in fear. Because in “ParaNorman,” the real monsters often look an awful lot like us.
Contains scary action and images, thematic elements, some rude humor and language.