I got a pair o’ Normans right here, pal.
The summer of 2012 was bloated with blockbusters, including big-ass superhero flicks like Marvel’s The Avengers and The Dark Knight Rises, but the movie I was most looking forward to was Paranorman. From the same studio that crafted the wondrous Coraline in 2009, Paranorman promised big laughs and big zombie action, all created in meticulously-crafted stop motion animation. Did it live to my expectations? Will it live up to yours?
Norman (Cody Smit-McPhee, Let Me In) is an ordinary kid, except that he can speak to the dead. They’re everywhere he goes, and he’s the only one who can see them. This has made him an outsider at school, and a concern for his family. When a mysterious stranger (John Goodman, Raising Arizona) with ties to his family warns Norman of a grave danger on the way, Norman finds himself surrounded by zombies, with a sinister face in the clouds looming over his entire town.
On the run, Norman recruits help from his sister (Anna Kendrick, Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World), a fellow nerd (Tucker Albrizzi), the school bully (Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Kick-Ass), a bodybuilding hunk (Casey Affleck, Tower Heist), and more. As the town swarms with zombies and the end seems nigh, Norman discovers that there is more to this eerie conflict than it seems.
I love stop motion animation, and the visuals in Paranorman impress. It’s deceptively elaborate animation, with huge sets for the character models to run around in, sometimes only for a few seconds. There’s a lengthy car chase in the middle of the movie, forcing the animators to construct huge stretches of road for the model car to “drive” down. This attention to detail is mind-boggling. One character has a glowing effect, done simply by placing lights inside the stop motion puppet. The result is an eye-popping visual, one that looks best in this style. The stop motion is then bolstered by modern day tech, with lighting, camera work, and, yes, judiciously-applied CGI, this is a good-looking movie.
Good-looking, but also grotesque at times, sometimes grotesque not in the way the animators intended. The character models are made with full-color 3-D printers, which give the characters’ faces more expressions and details than ever before. To show this off, there are a lot of extreme close-ups of the characters, with their faces filling the entire screen. Yes, the character models are impressive, but a lot of these characters aren’t exactly pretty, so putting right in their faces just makes viewers want to turn their heads.
More troubling, though, are problems with inconsistencies about what the movie is about. At first, it’s about Norman and his reluctant friendship with fellow nerd Neil. Then, there’s a shift and the story is about Norman having to work alongside the bully Alvin. Then there’s another shift, and it’s about Norman and his sister learning to respect each other. As the movie barrels straight toward its finale, it almost becomes about Norman and his parents finally seeing eye to eye. You could argue that this is Norman having a positive effect on all the people in his life, but it doesn’t come across that way. All the characters have their own subplots going on, all of which have something to do with Norman, and they intersect at various points in the film. This overabundance of subplots doesn’t go anywhere, and while the main plot is resolved, the supporting character subplots just felt like a distraction.
Getting back to Norman, just what is his character arc? He can see ghosts, and this makes him an outsider, but throughout the course of the movie, that same ability becomes a gift, and he uses it to save the day. The thing is, Norman begins the movie totally OK with his “gift.” He chats to his dead grandmother, he says hi to all the ghosts on his way to school in the morning. Norman is able to see ghosts, and while he never lets it get him down. The point is made several time that Norman loves horror movies, and his bedroom is filled with horror memorabilia. This shows that Norman is already well acquainted with his dark side. It seems to me that a story of this made sort should begin with Norman troubled by his power, or at least wondering why he has it, and then he learns to accept his power and be empowered by it through his adventures. That’s not the story we get. Instead, as the credits roll, I wonder how, exactly, he’s changed, or what affect he’s had on the others in his life. Yes, there’s a nice “family togetherness” moment at the end, but it just doesn’t feel like enough.
Despite my gripes, the good news is that the main plot has some interesting things to say. The centerpiece of the movie is when the zombies first march from the woods into the center of town. The townspeople see the zombies and freak out, and suddenly the question is raised—just who is the real monster? It’s the old “people fear what they don’t understand” bit, which relates to Norman and his status as an outsider, as well as the main antagonist, once revealed, who has a similar plight. This is mixed together with an anti-bullying message, which comes close to being laid on too thick, but not quite. Norman’s final confrontation with the antagonist lays out these themes in a simple way that is not too show-offy, and really represents the movie at its most heartfelt.
Is Paranorman funny? Yes, there are some big laughs. There are a lot of amusing one-liners thrown around here and there. The flirtations between Norman’s sister and Mitch provides for some great laughs, as well as the dim-bulb reactions from Alvin. Speaking of Alvin, he gets a short dance scene that’s a great moment of slapstick comedic acting on the part of the animators. For the more base among you, there’s plenty of gross-out humor as well, but it’s never so extreme that it ruins the movie.
The audio and video on the Blu-ray are top of the line. The picture is so clean and razor-sharp that you can make out all the little details. There’s one shot, in which Norman walks up the steps toward a gloomy old house, that the amount of detail and clarity in the picture took my breath away. As good as the visuals are, though, the real standout is the audio, which is astonishing. The graveyard scene, when the zombies make their big entrance, is all about booming thunder and cracking gravestones, truly immersing the viewer in the moment through pure sound. The John Carpenter-inspired synth-heavy score sounds tremendous as well.
Bonus features begin with a commentary from co-directors Chris Butler and Sam Fell, going over the production and showing off a lot of little references and details. From there, we get a lengthy behind-the-scenes documentary detailing the complicated yet creative stop motion process. This is supplemented by a series of seven shorter featurettes, examining specific scenes more in depth. Seven preliminary animatics round out the package. The set also includes a DVD copy, as well as digital and ultraviolet copies.
It’s a mixed bag. There’s a lot to love about Paranorman, but the story didn’t come together the way I’d hoped. I’m going to go ahead with a recommendation, as the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Maybe the character development doesn’t mesh with the wild ride the movie takes you on, but it’s a wild ride nonetheless.