Note: This appeared in the print-only TV Guide of The Marshall Independent.
“ParaNorman” is the second major feature by the stop-motion animation studio Laika, after “Coraline” in 2009. Previously the studio has done only commercials, a short, and contract work on features such as
Tim Burton’s “Corpse Bride” (2005,) which it visually resembles.
Laika is owned by Phil Knight, billionaire cofounder of Nike, and run by his son Travis. It is located in Hillsboro, Oregon. About as far from Hollywood as you can get and still be on the West Coast.
Laika was the name of the Russian dog that in 1957 became the first animal launched into space, and tragically the first to die in space.
Laika seems to have promising beginnings. “ParaNorman” has been getting largely favorable reviews and doing very good box office.
“ParaNorman” is the first stop-motion film to use the new full-color 3-D printers, a technique which greatly speeds up the production of stop-motion animation, hitherto an incredibly tedious process.
“ParaNorman” is visually compelling, but not terribly original plot-wise. So who cares? It’s a children’s movie and children don’t give a durn about originality, they want a story. Every parent who knows certain children’s books by heart knows that.
Norman Babcock (voiced by Kodi Smit-McPhee) is a schoolboy in the sleepy New England town of Blithe Hollow, Massachusetts. Norman sees dead people.
Norman is misunderstood by everyone except his dead grandmother (Elaine Stritch,) who haunts the couch in the TV room. The only person who wants to be friends with him is bullied fat kid Neil Downe (Tucker Albrizzi.)
Norman has an uncle Mr. Prenderghast (John Goodman,) who is so crazy he embarrasses even Norman.
But Uncle Prenderghast has a secret. He’s the last keeper of a yearly ritual that keeps the spirit of a witch asleep. A witch executed 300 years ago, who put a zombie curse on seven men and women who condemned her to death.
There you’ve got witches, ghosts, and zombies. (No vampires though, that would be a bit over the top.)
And they all come out to play when Uncle Prenderghast has a fatal heart attack on the eve of the yearly ritual.
The only way for a grown-up to review a children’s movie, is to take some children to see it. If the kids sit through it without too many bathroom breaks, requests for treats from the concession, or “When is it going to be over?” then it’s a good kids movie. The grownups function is to decide if it’s something they want their kids to see.
OK, it’s pretty good. I heard lots of laughs from my 11-year-old and my six-year-old, and chuckled a few times myself. About scary I got different opinions.
“Boy that part with the witch’s face in the sky was scary,” said 11-year-old.
“I wasn’t scared!” quoth six-year-old.
Going down the suitable-movie-for-kids checklist I found:
Scary but won’t give the kids nightmares, check.
Nerdy kids save the day and become school heroes, check.
Parents come to understand and accept eccentric, gifted son, check.
Clairol-brained teenage sister (Anna Kendrick) stands up for baby brother, check.
School bully (Christopher Mintz-Plasse ) comes around, wants to hang with nerdy kids to bask in reflected glory, check.
Zombies turn out to be repentant for the harm they did during their lives and just want to say they’re sorry, OK that’s a twist.
The witch (Jodelle Ferland ) turns out not to be evil but misunderstood, awwwww.
Stuff I wasn’t so crazy about:
Female town sheriff (Tempestt Bledsoe) portrayed as a buffoon (and African-American to boot, an equal opportunity buffoon.)
Adults portrayed as clueless, violent, and needing guidance from a grade-schooler. I know the trope is very much a part of our culture, but why are grownups expected to learn tolerance, non-violence, and to respect our differences from children? Work that way for you in grade school?
Then there’s Mitch (Casey Affleck,) the jock without three brain cells to clink together who is nonetheless a good and protective big brother to Neil.
Of course Courtney goes ga-ga over him.
I’m waiting for a bright, scholarly, athletic role model for young boys. “Mens sana in corpore sano.”
Mitch is not only dumb, but turns out he’s gay. That’s a gotcha on Courtney.
I’m not going to get indignant on that one or moan about the effect on my kids. The fact is it sailed right over their heads. It’s a joke for the adults, revenge on the jocks who were popular in high school and had all the cheerleaders throwing themselves at them. Appealing to adults who were bright nerds but a little out of place here. The irony is, Knight is both bright and an athlete. Just the guy to inspire kids to strive to be physically fit AND bright.
Maybe next time.