ParaNorman begins with one of the coolest and most unusual scenes ever to appear in what to all outward appearances is a kid's movie, a stop-motion zombie film-within-a-film that itself demonstrates the potential for the animation technique that has yet to be unlocked.
This is just one of many ways in which Laika’s latest production charms and deceives. Beginning with Henry Selick’s award-winning Moongirl, (which played at Fantastic Fest in 2005) and continuing with Coraline in 2009, Laika is building a body of work that marks them as potentially doing for stop-motion what Pixar did for CGI while incidentally making them a much smaller, quirkier competitor.
Yes, ParaNorman is a family-friendly film, but with a sensibility and story that will appeal to adults as much as to their children. Dark humor and creepy moments abound, but the script is full of good chuckles delivered by a talented cast of newcomers supported by extremely notable side characters. Kodi Smit-McPhee, as the title character Norman, steps in from the supremely dark Let Me In to a more kid-friendly role. His pal in the film, Neil is voiced by Tucker Albrizzi, who has a sizable body of TV work but appears for the first time in a feature film here. Rounding out the main cast are Anna Kendrick and Christopher Mintz-Plasse. That supporting cast includes veterans John Goodman, Casey Affleck, Alex Borstein, Bernard Hill and Elaine Stritch.
Written by Chris Butler, who co-directed with Sam Fell, there is more than just a creepy, funny film about witches and zombies here. ParaNorman contains a strong message about bullying among children and why many do it. As a kid obsessed with the macabre who can talk to ghosts, Norman is victimized daily by schoolmate Alvin (Mintz-Plasse). His friend Neil with good-natured innocence explains matter-of-factly how he lets taunts and insults roll off his back. He unknowingly gives Norman the perspective he needs to save the day and become a hero.
Though Selick was the big name at Laika, no need to fear for the company with his departure. Butler and Fell’s beautiful and original work shines with a powerfully positive message for misfits of all shapes and sizes. Paranorman takes stop-motion animation in new directions, exceeding even the technical achievements of Coraline. Visually, it is rich with color and depth, and the characters have a more organic, lifelike feel that seems impossible for stop-motion. As a technical work it defines state-of-the-art and as a film it is a masterpiece.