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Animation is truly one the most remarkable mediums of filmmaking. Accepting that motion pictures are literally pictures in motion, fewer forms merge the magical and the mundane so seamlessly, or with such explicit disregard for the limits of the imagination. The stop-motion studio, Laika, is so named for the first terrestrial creature in space, and it’s an appropriate moniker for the filmmaking wizards who so deftly weave the boundaries of the practical and the impossible in ParaNorman, one of the best films of 2012.
In the town of Blithe Hollow, Massachusetts, Norman (Kodi Smit-McPhee) sees dead people. Misunderstood by his family, estranged from his peers, and sceptically regarded as “That Kid” by the town, his only source of kinship comes in the form of his dead grandmother (Elaine Stritch), fellow outcast, Neil (the hilariously Google-able Tucker Albrizzi), and the unrestful dead found floating down the street.
Norman lives in the ominous shadow of his estranged Uncle Prenderghast (John Goodman), a fellow medium outcast charged with preventing a witch’s powerful curse… a curse that proves oddly prescient when the spirit of said witch returns to wreak vengeance on the town. With help from his new friend Neil, Norman must embrace his difference to discover the mystery behind the witch’s curse, and stop an army of zombies – and the bloodthirsty townspeople – from destroying Blithe Hollow.
There are a plethora of things that make ParaNorman unbelievably special. On the surface of it, the film is a work of visual art. The stop-motion animation is superb, filled with autumnal colour and evocative, atmospheric lighting effects. The character design, erring on the right side of caricature, is fantastically expressive; cutting-edge 3D colour printers were used to create the puppet faces, and they’re impressive in their detail. Norman himself is a skinny, wide-eyed, electric-haired study in adolescent awkwardness, animated and voiced (along with all the characters) with tremendously subtle skill.
That same subtle skill is evident in the film’s impeccable direction and unusually fine script. Like Rise of the Guardians, the film is credited with a singular author, but tellingly, the themes of isolation, acceptance, tolerance and compassion here are focused to a coherent laser point. The screenplay hits familiar beats, but twists them in such a way that they never feel forced or rote. Genuine emotion is rare in children’s filmmaking these days, but ParaNorman imbues both the larger thematic arcs and the smallest intimate moments with considered, sensitive heartache. The climax is among the most emotionally satisfying in years, of any film or format.
Originally screening in the USA during the Halloween season, the film’s genre (an elaborate and gleeful horror homage) makes it a hard sell for the post-Christmas holiday season, but its appeal is broader than its pagan roots. Like its softly spoken hero, ParaNorman is deeply in love with horror movies, evident from its very first frame (a Tarantino-worthy slice of set-dressing) down to the handful of delicious visual and aural Easter Eggs that pop up throughout proceedings. Never sneering or snarky in the easy post-modern way, the film is an honest homage, celebrating the tropes of its genre while bending them in unexpected, often daringly different direction.
ParaNorman ultimately transcends its preconceived limitations as an animation, a children’s film, and a genre parody to become a thrillingly intelligent, emotionally resonant, and beautifully executed example of pure cinema. Bitingly funny, subversively sly, and genuinely scary in places, ParaNorman is a wonderful testament to its remarkable medium, and the limitlessness of the imagination.