Saturday, August 25, 2012

ParaNorman (Brockway)

Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway


"ParaNorman" is the stop-motion animated film that looks like a Tim Burton film but isn't. It's directed by British animator Sam Fell who made the highly respected feature "Flushed Away" that starred Hugh Jackman. Sam Fell's films have a quirky ease and a smooth irreverence that is very much in evidence once again in this latest outing. 

To be fair, "ParaNorman" is as light as it is colorful, but then again, it is difficult to take it to task. As airy and conventional as the film is, you will be immediately disarmed by its ghoulish joie de vivre. With its legion of unending knock-kneed skeletons and gummy ghouls, I have a hunch that this film was intended for those terror-tossing tweens, a cosy coven of young ones who crave a few jumps and jitters but are too young for Michael Jackson's 1983 "Thriller"  video or an episode of TrueBlood. There is an awful lot of popping eyes and characters going "Boo!" and "Whoo!". But there is enough creep in its kindness to make it a fun haunt for kids.

The story concerns a quiet boy named Norman who lives in a small new England town known for its witch-trial past. Curb Your Enthusiasm's Jeff Garlin voices the father and John Goodman voices a cantankerous uncle.

Norman's condition (of course you might guess) is that he sees dead people. He's a medium of sorts, but he doesn't see this as a profession, but merely his lot in life.

Norman is bullied for his clairvoyance and seeks spiritual solace from his ghostly grandma, voiced by the wonderful Elaine Stritch, who resembles a "Far Side" cartoon. Grandma floats and bobs but mostly comments sweetly about her feet being cold as she watches what is presumably a version of "Night of the Living Dead" on Tv with the pale and cute Norman.
As things evolve there are many visual quotes from what feels like an episode of Pee Wee Herman. We watch Norman get dressed and froth at the mouth like a zombie as he brushes his teeth. 

And this is worth a few half Priced (as in Vincent) chuckles. 

The real interest though, is the pint sized poignancy evoked by the appearance of  Aggie Prenderghast who was persecuted as a witch and stifled by a curse. Aggie was not allowed to be a normal child as she was put to death. It is this aspect of the film that gives the animation  some dramatic power, even to the point of lifting its somewhat predictable Day of the Dead motif above the Norm, and offering some painterly splashes that pleasantly remind you of Chagall or Paul Klee. 

If there is one criticism of "ParaNorman",  it is that it skimps in its  limited skeletal vision with too many identical-looking banshees, gremlins and ghouls all in shaded in green. Even the mortals invariably have big pink noses and big necks that swerve and list from side to side, regardless whether these features are undead or living. 

And yes, Norman literally  undertakes the task at hand---he's a Howdy Doody horror show hero as you might well expect. Alas, most kids will find the film amiable and pleasing, well able to give gentle nudges in the night, but other Terrible Tweens and most grown Goths might be able to divine that ParaNorman, is, in the end, just a shade too ParaNormal.

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