Monday, August 20, 2012

PARANORMAN Is Creepy/Funny Fun


I really wanted to love PARANORMAN. The movie's retro-horror cold open made me smile with geeky glee. Its uber-cool 80's-synth soundtrack instantly got me doing the monster mash in my theater seat. And its visuals - oh man - the movie's gorgeous stop-motion animation is a sight to behold - pure eye candy from start to finish. I wanted to love this movie, and all the elements were there to make this a modern-day horror/comedy/animation classic. But the script and story, unfortunately, were just too all-over-the-place to make it all come together. The movie veers wildly from heavy-handed moralizing to Saturday morning cartoon-style humor and hijinks. And most of its characters don't amount to much more than cartoonish cliches. That said, I still think this one is well worth a watch - and kids will probably love its just-slightly-subversive humor and fun (and not-too-scary) zombie invasion storyline. Others may not get as much from the story, but anyone can appreciate the dazzling house-of-horrors visuals - especially in 3D.

For a movie that unfolds in a rather straightforward manner, the backstory of Paranorman is a bit convoluted. Essentially, young Norman is an elementary-school outcast, made fun of by his classmates and chastized by his father for claiming that he can, well, see dead people. But Norman does see dead people - ghosts, specifically. He chats regularly with the ghost of his dear, departed grandma, and, everywhere he goes, he sees all manner of specters and spooks floating about. As it turns out - and as the old saying goes - with great power comes great responsibility. By way of his creepy uncle Prenderghast, Norman learns that it's up to him to keep at bay the curse of a witch named Aggie, who was famously put on trial hundreds of years ago, and who supposedly resurfaces to terrorize the town every four years. The witch has since become a cartoonish mascot of the town, but her curse is no laughing matter - she plans to raise a legion of undead zombies to wreak havoc ... unless Norman and his pals can stop her. His crew includes his new friend Neil - a chubby kid who's defiantly nonplussed by the bullies who torment him at school ... Alvin, one of those bullies who gets caught up in Norman's adventure ... Courtney, Norman's cheerleader teen sister ...and Mitch, Neil's meathead teen brother (who Courtney has a major crush on, of course).

Where I found some fault with Paranorman was in a lot of the characters mentioned above. Norman himself is a capable kid hero, but the rest of his gang all felt like total cliches, with very little to subvert the stereotypes. You've got the goofy fat kid, the thuggish bully, the airhead cheerleader, and the dumb goofy jock. Yes, there is a twist around the jock character that is revealed at the very end of the movie ... but to me it felt more like the punchline to a running joke than an actual bit of characterization. In any case, it's a shame because there is so much about Paranorman that feels so genuinely fresh and creative. But it veers wildly from imaginative and clever to kiddy and cliched. The humor, too, has moments of legitimate brilliance (a gag where a guy being chased by zombies pauses to grab some chips from a vending machine, for example, had me rolling), but there is also a lot of more juvenile butt-joke type stuff. It'd be one thing if the tone of the movie was that of an over-the-top comedy, but Paranorman is sort of all-over-the-place. There's some very serious, very emo moments of moralizing and drama - which makes the more silly stuff stick out like a sore thumb. Point being, Paranorman sometimes feels like a few different movies smashed together into one. Unlike, say, Coraline (the previous product from stop-motion studio Laika) - which felt very much like a singular vision that had one, consistent tone throughout. But Paranorman - I mean, it's got everything: old-school horror homages, Saturday morning cartoon humor, darkness, goofiness, subtle humor, gross-out humor, and a story with a pretty crazy mythology behind it that feels both convoluted and undercooked.

And yet ... Paranorman is often a joy to watch, because it quite simply looks awesome. The stop-motion animation is some of the most gorgeously-crafted I've ever seen. The use of color is amazing - reminded me a bit of the Tim Schaefer-produced game Psychonauts. There's a acid-tinged, funhouse look to the film that is totally delightful. I loved the character design from a visual standpoint. And the sense of energy, inventiveness, winking humor, and creepiness in the direction is fantastic. Studio Laika has outdone themselves in this regard.

I'll also give a lot of credit to the star-studded voice cast of the film. Sometimes it can be frustrating watching an animated movie so filled with recognizable actors, because you end up spending half the movie playing "guess that actor." But the cast is utilized so well that you have to appreciate the talent on display. I've been a fan of Kodi Smit-McPhee from his work in The Road and Let Me In, and he's great here as Norman. Anna Kendrick brings some unexpected depth to Norman's ditzy older sister. Tucker Albrizzi has great comic timing as Neil (his "Don't make me throw this hummus! It's spicy!" line is a winner), and Christopher Mintz-Plasse is quite good as insecure bully Alvin. Casey Affleck has some funny moments as Neil's big bro. You've also got Jeff Garlin and Leslie Mann as Norman's parents, Elaine Stritch as his ghostly grandma, and John Goodman as his crazy uncle.

A mention should also be made of the score ... which is awesome. Like the movie's tone, it too is a little all-over-the-place, shifting from big orchestral stuff to Carpenter-esque horror-synth ... but in both instances, it's really, really well done.

Like I said, kids will probably go nuts for Paranorman. It's the perfect sort of horror-movie gateway drug for kids just getting into creepy stuff. Kids will laugh at the bathroom humor, but what will ultimately leave a bigger impression are the touches of harmless-but-still-spooky horror. And those moments are what worked best for me - when the movie hit that perfect sweet spot of creepy-comedy goodness that's like peanut butter and chocolate on Halloween. But when it devolved into kid-pandering stereotypes, or during its big, climactic (overly preachy, overly expository) showdown that felt lifted from some bugnuts Japanese role-playing game, it felt like the movie was losing its focus and going off the rails. Paranorman doesn't quite have the timeless charm to become an all-ages classic, in the vein of The Nightmare Before Christmas, Coraline, or much of the Pixar cannon. But it is a perfectly pleasant, spooky, funny, and visually-stunning amusement that's worth checking out.

My Grade: B

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