Saturday, August 18, 2012

Fun, Creepy, and Hollow -- Reflections on "ParaNorman" (2012)

Growing up, I fell in love with EC Comics – the horror ones in particular. My eyes gobbled up as many reprints of Tales from the Crypt, Shock Suspenstories, and Vault of Horror as they could. The words of William Gaines, the art of Jack Davis, Wally Wood, and a host of other comic legends captured my imagination and ensured a lifelong love of pulpy horror fiction.

Watch the closing credits of ParaNorman and you’ll see the filmmakers had the same love. Throughout this spectacularly macabre stop motion world are characters and monsters that seem ripped out of the pages of those 50s comic books. The zombies are falling apart, the ghosts are shrouded in spectral mists, and the people look every bit as haunted as people living in a supernatural world should.

I only wish the movie would have truly embraced the anarchic spirit of those comic books. At times it felt like the filmmakers wanted to – there are some deliciously dark moments, like the wild car chase in which a zombie clings to the outside of a swerving van while one of his detached limbs wrecks havoc inside on the driver and passengers. But because this is a “children’s film” (a term which must be used very loosely with ParaNorman), the air is taken out of the movie’s sails by needless preaching and a third act that tries to amp up the pathos on its way to a happy ending.

At least none of the characters led a group dance to Michael Jackson’s Thriller, or a revamped version of Monster Mash (something I fully expect from this fall’s Hotel Transylvania).

Our story involves Norman (Kodi Smit-McPhee), an odd boy with a Tim Burton-esque haircut who is able to commune with ghosts. No one believes he has this power, of course, leading to a slew of scenes in which he is persecuted by parents, peers, and teachers. Everyone thinks he’s crazy, except the school’s bully-bait fat kid, Neil (Tucker Albrizzi), who wants to be his friend. Eventually Norman learns from his crazy, hermit uncle (John Goodman) that a local legend of a witch’s curse is actually true, and Norman is the only one who can stop it.

The first half of ParaNorman is fun, wicked, totally inappropriate for its target audience*, and suspenseful. Norman is a strong character, enduring the endless bullying with a reluctant maturity**. His conflict is intense, the stakes are high, and we want nothing more than to see him succeed. Yet, as the movie progresses in its second half, a few narrative decisions are made that seem more to appease parents, ensure a PG rating, or simply to turn the movie into a pulpit. I was bothered by an anti-climatic resolution at the end of the movie’s otherwise strong second act, in which many characters begin behaving out of character, and Norman’s otherwise quiet strength causes him to suddenly become as dull and lifeless as the ghosts he talks to.

Yet, I recommend ParaNorman for a couple reasons. The most important is its stop-motion techniques. While it is nowhere near as stellar as Coraline or The Nightmare Before Christmas, ParaNorman does make effective use of an animation style that is slowly being eroded by CGI. We need to support unique animation like this. Even though I was frustrated by elements of the narrative, the love, care, and hard work by the animation team was obvious in every frame. While many CGI films are fantastic, they seldom ever feel as tactile or painstaking as movies like these.

The second reason is for the simple pleasures the movie brings. Neil is a fun character, and one scene in particular involving a hockey mask had me and the audience I saw the movie with laughing pretty hard. The zombies look amazing – just cartoonish enough to be fun, and just creepy enough to give a lot of kids a few nightmares. And the tribute paid to classic ‘B’ horror flicks in the opening scene is almost worth the price of admission by itself.

I wish ParaNorman had eschewed the desire for a PG and gone full-tilt creepshow, but what we got instead was a fine, beautifully animated movie that hits the mark more than it misses.

* I don’t usually talk about age appropriateness with movies, but I feel it’s important to note that ParaNorman is a pretty hardcore PG (if such a thing can exist without a hint of irony). With its scary looking monsters, as well as a lot of scatological and sexual humor, I would think twice about taking any kid under the age of 10. I mention this because there were several children at my screening, and there were a lot of them seeking refuge in the laps of their parents throughout the movie.

** Norman is quite a mature child for his age – elementary school age, so I guess he’s around 10-11 – but unfortunately no one else around him seems to be. One of my pet peeves in movies is the stereotype of the stupid, or ignorant adult. This film, like many kids films before it, promotes the ideas that kids have all the answers, and adults are dumb, judgmental, or out of touch with reality. I know kids are the target audience, but it bothers me that not a single adult in this movie seems to have an IQ over 90 and wisdom beyond that of a few well-chosen proverbs. Ultimately, I think it hurts the film in a narrative way because it deprives Norman of someone to look to for guidance or sympathy when he needs it most.