Apart from the hotly debated merits of the wide worlds of Disney, Pixar, and Dreamworks, animation studio Laika has quietly stacked a second fearless stop-motion feature atop the already staggering achievements of 2009's Coraline. Where Coraline wowed with surreal, storybook expressionism and effects that seemed too impossibly precise and painstaking to be the work of a team carefully shooting each frame, ParaNorman continues to establish Laika as a presence worth taking serious note of. What appears to be a simple kiddie monster movie (and it is the ultimate trick or treat post-game show) gives way to sophisticated storytelling, smartly crafted dialogue, and a respect for its audience's intelligence that should send Pixar into a panic. Built from a collection of influences from Tim Burton to George Romero, Steven Spielberg to John Carpenter, ParaNorman has a clarity of vision that allows it to build a loving pastiche to its predecessors without succumbing to being mere parody or homage. First time writer/director Chris Butler knows what he's doing and orchestrates every witch's hex and zombie claw with exactly enough manic energy to keep it a first class cartoon, and enough heart to, well, devour yours. Hey Laika? Three years between studio features is a long time to wait, but the quirky artistry of the strange and beautiful ParaNorman makes it seem completely worthwhile.
The Norman of the title is an 11-year old outsider who, it seems, finds a strange solace in the predictability of horror movies. He lives in one of those charming little East Coast towns obsessed and haunted by their witch burning past, but no one seems to question their shared dark history. Instead, they pick mercilessly on Norman. Because he communicates with them on the regular, everyone knows that Norman can see ghosts, a gift which means he's relentlessly bullied by kids quick to label him as a liar, freak, or attention starved weirdo. His own family has no faith in his abilities and worries aloud when Norman insists his deceased grandmother communicates with him from her seemingly eternal place looking out for him from the living room couch. Things get complicated when the neighborhood lunatic (who just happens to be a relative) taps young Norman for a dead-wrangling responsibility involving the unhinged spirits of past pilgrims and victims. While the film has quite a bit of fun with its zombie movie roots, and throws around a clever, more adult wit, it's sweeter than it is scary. The joys of ParaNorman are only partially derived from its visual gags. Instead, the relationships here are deftly rendered in small spaces. The dialogue is doing wonders when it comes to constructing meaningful relationships that kids can understand and identify with while more grown up folk appreciate the unpretentious, unprecocious honesty of the connections here. Norman is immediately lovable, and his new found friends and sidekicks (especially Neil and his big bro) have a real-kid quality found only in the most beloved, well-worn VHS tapes of someone's 80's childhood. It's awesome, endearing, and spooky atmospheric. And although I know it would be the perfect second film in a double feature with Hocus Pocus...i totally have to rant about the haters now.
Ahem. Because most of the talk I hear about ParaNorman revolves around whether or not it's "kid appropriate"... a short rant: too many kids these days all like weirdly coddled, nightmare-prone wusses. Their parents have no problem giving them highlights, high heels, and cell phones, but show them a movie with a touch of darkness or a 'scary' monster? All bets are off. The kid freaks out, the parent doesn't want to deal with the hiding under the covers that could possibly result from short-term exposure to Lord Voldemort or Maleficent. OH NO. YOUR CHILD MIGHT CRY/SCREAM/QUESTION YOU ABOUT THE NATURE OF EVIL/NOT SLEEP FOR A COUPLE DAYS. This is out of the question, of course, so, you know, just cut them off at book three of Harry Potter, stick their noses in a Nintendo DS, and let them think everything is made of sunshine, My Little Pony, and Pikachu until one day they wake up in adolescence and don't have a single coping method from those sleepless nights quaking and hiding under the covers because someone's older brother decided to switch the cable channel to Friday the 13th and that hockey mask re-contextualized everything. That might be a slight exaggeration, but, really: dear parents, solve that shit early. Let your kids watch ParaNorman, understand that they can totally handle it, enjoy the ride, and stop complaining about how supposedly inappropriate the film is for your precious, incorruptible offspring. Try to remember every party spent telling ghost stories and sticking hands in vats of peeled-grape eyeballs and jell-o brains, every grizzly fairy tale of chopped off heels and man-eating wolves, every game spent hiding in dark backyards waiting for the adrenaline rush that comes from a seeker stepping close, every Halloween you wanted to be a witch, a mummy, a bloody-fanged vampire; people (especially kids) kinda like being comfortably scared. With ParaNorman? The Halloween imagery comes is backed with serious art.