From the opening synthesizer chords aping the soundtrack from VHS classics like John Carpenter’s ‘Prince of Darkness,’ I knew ‘Paranorman‘ was made with care.
Visually electrifying, but still clearly handmade, ‘Paranorman’ is a striking marriage of form and content. Set in a New England hamlet with a witch trial-based tourist economy, it tells the story of a young boy who has the ability to see and talk with ghosts. Basically, ‘The Sixth Sense,’ but fun.
Grade school is tough enough for kids, but when you are known as “Ab-Norman” for frequent trances and relaying dispatches from beyond the grave, it’ll get you permanently marked as a freak. (In a nice spin that exploits the “we can do anything” vibe of animation, Christopher Mintz-Plasse voices the role of the bully.)
Norman’s parents are understandably concerned about his development (he still has conversations with Grandma, even though she’s dead) and worry he’s going to end up like the town loon, who happens to be Norman’s uncle.
As it turns out, the scraggly-bearded uncle with gross fingernails and a decades-long maid’s day off shares the same gift/affliction as Norman. Not just that, it is he that keeps the annual witch’s curse at bay via his necromantic ways. But when the old man drops dead (in one of the more flippant death scenes in a movie ostensibly aimed at kids) the baton is passed to our young hero.
With plot mechanics quickly established, ‘Paranorman’ rolls up its sleeves for its real work – top notch comedy and dazzling design. Both come from the right place – an extended cast of marvelously developed characters.
There is remarkable nuance of an almost Springfield-like nature given to the residents of Blithe Hollow. From the theater instructor swatting away historical accuracy in her Halloween pageant (“it’s supposed to sell postcards!”) to the weary mom yearning for a dinner out (“tonight I was supposed to have a meal someone else microwaved!”) the jokes have a panache that would be noticeable in any film, let alone an animated one.
The best side character, if only because it puts a new spin on and old trope, is the tubby best friend voiced by Tucker Albrizzi. Armed with a container of spicy hummus, he’s ready stand by his best pal through thick and thin. He’s the best of Samwise Gamgee and Russell from ‘Up.’ His flavor of Candide-ism is like a curious, self-aware Ralph Wiggum. A dunce, sure, but okay with it, and effective against the foes.
Who the foes are is the only real issue I had with ‘Paranorman.’ Other than its philosophy of forgiveness and letting go, I wasn’t 100 percent certain who the bad guys were or their motivations. I got the gist of it, of course, and surely this will matter less to young people who will be agog at the specters that emerge from strips of ripped toilet paper, teddy bears that explode nasty flies, storm clouds that form a witches’ face or the half-dozen blurging ghouls chasing our heroes through the center of town.
For pure fun, ‘Paranorman’ is currently my top rated animated picture of 2012. The painstaking detail put into each raised eyebrow and tiny background prop absolutely pays off. It is bursting from the care put into each frame, as this follows through each stage of production. Jon Brion’s score is rich and full of emotion, but opts for grandeur instead of the ragtime-y shuffle associated with Randy Newman.
‘Paranorman’ is the second film after ‘Coraline’ to come from Portland-based Laika Studios, and after ‘Cars 2′ and ‘Brave’ they’ve suddenly become the four-quadrant animation company to beat. I don’t know what they’ve got in the hummus up there but whatever it is, it’s working.
‘Paranorman’ hits theaters on August 17th.
Jordan Hoffman was the movies editor at Hearst Digital’s UGO for four years and currently contributes to SlashFilm, MTV’s NextMovie and StarTrek.com. He’s made two marginally successful independent movies, is a member of the New York Film Critics Online and was named IFC’s Ultimate Film Fanatic of the NorthEast in 2004. Follow him on Twitter at @JHoffman6.