Directed by: Sam Fell
Produced by: Travis Knight
Screenplay by: Chris Butler
Story by: Arianne Sutner
Starring: Kodi Smit-McPhee
Music by: Jon Brion
Cinematography by: Tristan Oliver
Editing by: Christopher Murrie
Distributed by: Focus Features (United States)
Universal Pictures (International)
Release date(s): August 3, 2012 (Mexico)
August 17, 2012 (United States)
September 14, 2012 (United Kingdom)
Running time: 92 minutes
Country: United States
Production budget: $60 million
Box office revenue: $95, 549, 164
Ahoy there, strangers. As you can see, I haven't posted for a couple of days, but frankly that's because I am a busy mofo right now, although there are certain entities on the face of this earth (including myself) who often claim that I am, rather baldly, a lazy bastard. That said, I have continued seeing movies, including a nice little gem by the name of Silence as part of the Queen's Film Theatre Green Screen Festival, celebrating Irish film, so, by all means, follow the tradition, assume the position and keep your eyes posted!
Right, so today's movie is ParaNorman, which is the latest film from the Laika animation studio, whose first feature film Coraline I was a big fan of. It was an old-school, stop-motion animated feature that was not only highly entertaining, but also challenged it's viewer in a respectful way, with it's dark subject matter. However, in 2009, Coraline's director Henry Selick, who had also made (with Tim Burton) The Nightmare Before Christmas and James And The Giant Peach, and as such, the young studio lost an industry veteran who was a valuable stablemate for the studio. So, after Selick's departure, and many staff lay-offs, particularly in the computer animation department, screenwriter Chris Butler directs ParaNorman with Sam Fell of Flushed Away and The Tale Of Despereaux fame. ParaNorman follows the story of a young boy by the name of Norman Babcock (Kodi Smit-McPhee), who is bullied as a result of (as if his name wasn't enough!) his coming across as strange to those who do not believe in his genuine ability to communicate with the dead. He's isolated from everyone in his family, except his dead grandmother (Elaine Stritch), until he becomes friendly with Neil (Tucker Albrizzi), also a loner because he's fat and eccentric. However, after the swift arrival and departure of Norman's similarly-afflicted uncle Mr. Prenderghast (John Goodman), he is appointed the task of performing a ritual from a book at a grave site to curb the impending entry of the undead into his town, as a result of the Witches Curse on the town three hundred years previously following an execution. Blah, blah, lots of synopsis, hopefully not too many spoilers: let's delve, shall we?
Right, to start with what is good, I must praise certain individuals of the voice cast, who as a uniform whole were pretty good. Kodi Smit-McPhee, one of the best young actors working in film, translates his talents into the lead vocal performance as Norman, and anchors the film well. It could have been an over-acted, over-melodramatic moody part, by he manages to play it at just the right tone, so Norman remains interesting instead of irritating. The same can be said for Tucker Albrizzi, whose Neil could have been a massive pain, but is a good source of fun and wit. Casey Affleck, who probably has one of the most distinctive voices in cinema, exaggerates himself a bit with his part, and makes Neil's older brother Mitch a unique character. From an audio-visual standpoint, it is amusing to see this massive guy who's built like a brick shithouse speak with such soft-spoken tones. Finally on the voice cast front, I thought Elaine Stritch's Grandma Babcock was one of the most charming things about the movie. Something about the way she captured that character's honesty struck a chord with me, and the relationship between her and Norman was completely legitimate and endearing, never once feeling contrived and phoney. Relationships are a key part to what made this movie feel like something of depth, and the script, although it has issues (more of which later), builds the interactions between different characters strongly. For starters, they are well-written and each has their own personality traits, so that's a good base to start with in terms of building their relationships. When this happens, they are revealed as three-dimensional, and whenever we get down the central crux of the film, the message it is sending and what it is trying to get at, it feels legitimate and human. Also, praise where praise is due, here in plentiful quantities, because the film's animation is splendid. As I'm sure I've mentioned in relation both to stop-motion and anime, I love the physicality, weight, and the idea that someone has actually went out and created these things. That is not a sleight on CG-animation, Pixar are the best animation company in the world, but it is a unique stylistic choice and it's use in this film is appropriate. The animation, in conjunction with cinematographer Tristan Oliver, achieve a terrific synthesis, operating in harmony, as not only are the characters wonderfully designed, the film is lit and shot intelligently, so as to display and highlight the craft of the Laika animation studio. Just on a final note with the good, the tone of the film invokes Arthur Miller's The Crucible and George A. Romero's Dead trilogy in terms of what is trying to get at. I have to respect the fact that a kids movie actually decides to challenge it's audience and take inspiration more from these sources, while keeping everything pretty clean and accessible. Most kids will remember the films, like The Lion King (Mustafa's death haunts me to this day!), that challenge them and hit home hard, and I think the filmmakers realised this and play a great balancing act of making a thoughtful, engaging, unpatronising and most importantly, hilarious horror-comedy, designed for kids, but accessible for everyone.
Now, I did love ParaNorman and think it was a great movie. However, it ain't a masterpiece, and there are a couple of specific reasons for that. I'll get this one out of the way because everyone will groan once they see it: I wasn't fussed on the music. There was a nice synthesizer theme associated with certain characters (no spoilers!), but for the most part Jon Brion's primary instrument is the acoustic guitar, and I don't think that it fits the project. Watching it, I couldn't help but think how something along the lines of the post-punk of Joy Division or The Cure a la Charlotte Sometimes would have fit the supernatural/gothic atmosphere of ParaNorman. Also, while I respected the complexity of his characters, Chris Butler's screenplay does have a few issues. The story is nothing new, but it is done with such flair that I can't complain about that. No, the main issue is that some of the film's thematic content and the messages it is trying to send are too easy to get. I like what it says, but it says it in such an overt way that it is kind of like waving a red flag at a bull, and I of course am going to latch onto that stuff, so they don't need to keep hammering it home. That is the primary niggle, as I think given how unpatronising the film is, that is an issue.
These things being said, ParaNorman is a great movie. You already know what I think was good about it, so I'm just going to tell you a brief anecdote that masquerades as a summary. I went to The Strand in East Belfast (my local and favourite cinema) for six o'clock screening, and it had been out for some time, so I paid five pounds to see the movie in a screening that had an audience of one, namely me. As such, I got free choice of seats and just sat back and watched this wonderful movie unfold. I laughed consistently throughout, and besides the gypsies in The Turin Horse, haven't been as scared at the cinema this year. I encourage you all to go and see, because although it ain't perfect, it's a damn sight better a comedy and horror movie than most films out there.
The Thin White Dude's Prognosis - 8.2/10
The Thin White Dude's Self-Diagnosis - Cool (off for reading week. I work better solo, so not having to go into Uni really means I get more work, from employment, studious and hobby standpoints done. Also, being a minor Film Studies student, trips to the cinema count as research!)