The stop-motion triumph feels like a throwback to an edgier era of kid flicks.
ParaNorman, a wondrous stop-motion fantasia from the animation house behind Coraline, begins with a sequence so cheekily referential it could have been inserted into the middle of Grindhouse. After an amusingly archaic “Feature Presentation” bumper, we’re thrust into the opening film within a film—an imaginary Reagan-era schlockfest bathed in Argento-worthy colors and propelled by the synthy, Goblin-inspired throb of Jon Brion’s score. From here, ParaNorman settles into its narrative proper, a madcap and melancholic fable about a little boy (voiced by Kodi Smit-McPhee, of Let Me In and The Road) who can converse with the dead. Yet the ’80s horror references continue to pile up; throwaway nods to Friday the 13th and Halloween make this the rare scarefest that caters to both the Disney Channel demographic and Fangoria subscribers.
In a more general sense, it’s also a throwback to a very different breed of ’80s cinema: the edgier, less sanitized kiddie fare of the era. For anyone who grew up on faintly crass preteen entertainments like The Goonies, today’s family films seem beyond innocuous. They’re antiseptic—scrubbed clean of danger and eccentricity, with nothing that could possibly alarm an overprotective parent. There lies the retro-cool appeal of ParaNorman. Like Nicolas Roeg’s The Witches or Jim Henson’s Labyrinth, this superlative all-ages adventure—the high-water mark of 2012 animation—dares to be gross, strange and even a little scary.
You’d certainly be hard-pressed to find a more morbidly irreverent, PG-rated set piece than the one in which Norman, our lonely hero, attempts to pry a sacred tome from the cold, stiff fingers of his recently deceased uncle. (It’s a gloriously demented bit of slapstick.) The boy needs the book to combat a malevolent hex; despite his status as ghost-whispering town pariah, Norman has taken on the burden of his community. Soon the dead are rising from their graves, in one of several sequences that straddles the line between George Romero–style dread and Scooby-Doo-ish farce.
Directors Chris Butler and Sam Fell put great trust in their adolescent audience—not just to weather the more frightening visions they conjure, but also to connect with the richer material at the movie’s core. For all its chatty green specters and befuddled walking corpses, ParaNorman is chiefly interested in metaphorical ghosts. When Norman finally squares off with the villain behind the curse, an outcast whose history of torment mirrors his own, the final battle is a kind of crucible of forgiveness. Advocating for the relinquishing of grudges, the film looks in retrospect like the anti-Carrie. Its tag line could be “It gets better.”
Blending genres with Spielbergian panache, ParaNorman feels truly out of vogue—a family film that aims for the shared ground between grown-ups and children. Though some of the cinematic allusions may elude younger viewers, there’s rarely that sense (à la Shrek and its hyperactive ilk) that you’re watching an oil-and-water mixture of juvenile high jinks and parental pandering. The only contemporary correlative may be the work of John Lasseter and company—though given the diminishing returns of Pixar’s recent output, ParaNorman is a throwback even to their heyday.
ParaNorman arrives on VOD, DVD and Blu-ray Tuesday 27.