It's been 3+ years since locally-based animation house Laika released their first feature Coraline. Since then, the studio and Coraline's director Henry Selick (The Nightmare Before Christmas, James and the Giant Peach) parted ways, causing many to wonder what shape their next feature would take. Cue ParaNorman, another stop-motion animated children's film that retains the supernatural context of Coraline while chucking the pervading, overly serious tone of Laika's debut.
Co-directed by Chris Butler and Sam Fell, ParaNorman relays the story of Norman (voiced by Kodi Smit-McPhee), a young social outcast living in the New England town of Blithe Hollow who can, to quote a popular 90s thriller, "see dead people," much to the chagrin of his father (Jeff Garlin) who is frightened by his son's increasingly peculiar behavior. It's not long before Norman and his only friend Neil (Tucker Albrizzi) are approached by Blithe Hollow's resident hermit Mr. Prenderghast (John Goodman) who's looking to recruit Norman's gifts in the fight against zombies and a witch's curse.
Visually, this is one heck of stunner, among the best looking stop-motion animations released by anyone outside of Aardman Animations. The characters are all clean lines, loose-limbed and expressive. Best of all, the backdrop of Blithe Hollow, a tourist town shamelessly trading in on its dark history (resembling Salem, Massachusetts in more than a few ways) is filled to the brim with witch-themed attractions, offering a colorful array of oddly named businesses ("Witchy Wieners," for instance) that catch the eye throughout the picture.
Story-wise, Norman's family life, supernatural abilities, and persecution by a school bully keep things lively and interesting. But, once Norman and Neil set off to stop the curse, the film settles into a pattern embraced by far too many kids films nowadays: the plot points diminish in favor of something resembling a treasure hunt (a few of the Harry Potter films operated this way, too) with the characters needing to accomplish one goal before setting off on another. Kids are unlikely to be bothered by this development but adults may find the thinly-veiled repetition monotonous. Fortunately, there's always something visually arresting onscreen to distract whatever complaints one might have about the story. All in all, this is a solid, fun film with better than average use of 3D technology.
Oh, and a side note: in a less than scientific study, I noticed during last night's screening of the film that kids don't really get artful fades to white. During the three or four occasions that it happened in ParaNorman, many children in the audience thought something was wrong with the projection, eliciting questions to parents along the lines of "what happened?"
ParaNorman opens at several Portland area theaters on Friday, August 17th. More info available here.
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