It has always been a practice of mine to never trust an overly-glowing review of any film; if the critic can’t find fault, they haven’t looked hard enough. So if you therefore choose not to trust the following review of writer/director Chris Butler’s ‘ParaNorman’, I completely understand—but, believe me, I’ve looked hard.
High-schooler Norman Babcock (voiced by Aussie Kodi Smit-McPhee) can talk to ghosts. The biggest problem with this, of course, is that no-one believes him. His parents grow frustrated with his strange behaviour and his peers consider him a freak. Isolated from the world around him, Norman is resigned to being an outcast, enduring his strange power and the trouble it brings alone.
That is, until a strange and manic character appears one day to lay a greater responsibility upon Norman’s shoulders.
If you were disappointed that ‘Super 8’ wasn’t ‘The Goonies’ or ‘Monster Squad’, this film is for you. ‘ParaNorman’ takes ideas that have become stale after decades of use and revitalises them for a modern audience. Confidently mixing humour and darkness, the film is whimsical and droll, unafraid to take children by the hand and explore some weighty concepts—most notably death and what it means to the living. The film eschews being saccharine or manipulative, but I laughed out-loud and bawled my eyes out nevertheless.
One of ‘ParaNorman’s biggest strengths is the way the film deftly sets the audience’s expectations and then completely undermines them at every twist and turn, right up until the film’s final scene. Just when you think you’ve got a handle on what’s going on, writer/director Chris Butler throws a curve ball at you and takes the film in a different direction and yet, never feels contrived or confusing.
The characters are all well sketched, endearing and relatable, and the interactions and dynamics between the various players always feel authentic. Even the supporting characters, including the barely present parental figures and an amazing turn from the Alex Borstein-voiced (didn’t pick it) drama teacher feel like fully fleshed-out characters. What’s more, the main cast could easily devolve into the typical “group of kids on an adventure” stereotypes, but despite their familiarity, their complexity and depth will keep you guessing.
The stop-motion animation is absolutely top-notch and some of the scenes are amazing to behold. The characters are expressive and relatable in ways that would make Pixar green with envy, and there are times when you will have to scrutinize the landscape to make sure it’s not actually real.
‘ParaNorman’ is one of those rare films that wears its influences on its sleeve, but doesn’t need to be smug or obtuse about it. It’s relevant and poignant without being preachy, and delivers its ultimate message, a treatise on the nature of fear and the actions it provokes, with a wry smile as opposed to a sledgehammer with the word “SIGNIFICANT” engraved on it.
This will likely be one of those films that doesn’t garner a huge audience at the cinemas, what with a relatively negligible marketing campaign and a few other big blockbusters coming out around the same time (*cough*Hobbit*cough*), which will undoubtedly draw attention away from ‘ParaNorman’. But I cannot recommend this film highly enough, and urge anyone with a smaller, younger human being under their care to give this one a go. Neither of you will be disappointed.