Making a movie is about having respect — respect for the source material, respect for a studio’s investment and most of all, respect for the audience. It doesn’t matter if it’s a bunch of five-year-olds or a theater full of retirees. People who spend time and money to watch a story unfold on screen deserve to know that they’re not thought of as a room full of suckers. And get this — the films that innovate and challenge their audiences are the ones that get attention.
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“ParaNorman” isn’t afraid to do those things. Despite the comedic script, the filmmakers weren’t afraid to unsettle their audience with a surprisingly eerie storyline. It’s a significant risk considering the decidedly amicable and light-hearted nature of recent successful animated features. Directors Sam Fell (“The Tale of Despereaux”) and Chris Butler (“Coraline”) had to have known they were gambling with the noticeably creepier story. What’s surprising — and slightly inspiring — is how brilliantly the risk pays off.
The narrative picks up with a bleak glimpse into the life of Norman Babcock (Kodi Smit-McPhee, “Let Me In”), an ostracized and bullied outcast with an uncanny ability to speak with the dead. It’s “I see dead people,” in stop-motion. The only significant difference here is that Norman doesn’t choose to ignore his ability. More often than not, the ghosts that speak with him, such as his grandmother, are more approachable than the living — a depressing notion, but sadly relatable for anyone who has had the misfortune of being a physical and verbal punching bag for a bully.
As the film progresses, Norman gets strange visions of a witch who haunted the town centuries ago and was burned at the stake for her crimes. Norman’s only friend, Neil (Tucker Albrizzi, “Alvin and the Chipmunks: Chipwrecked”), and his seemingly deranged uncle (John Goodman, “Monsters Inc.”) urge him to act on these visions by performing an ancient ritual to protect the town from an impending storm. Instead, things inevitably go awry, zombies awaken and the fun begins.
And by fun — it’s a wickedly clever concoction of puppet animation and digital imagery that pushes the boundaries set by Laika Studio’s previous film, “Coraline.” The film’s beautifully composed set pieces are a breath of fresh air in light of all the current children’s features being dominated by a purely mechanical and sloppy digital form of animation. The sequence in which Norman comes into contact with his very first premonition is particularly well done. Even if you don’t end up liking the film, you’ll remember this individual scene, with its wisps of greenish mist swirling through the fine outlines of a dream — and then slowly you’ll realize it’s all done in clay.
In addition, the action doesn’t feel watered-down or tame just because it’s a kids film. The directors and animators aren’t afraid to showcase “Dawn of the Dead”-esque sequences featuring zombies tearing through flesh or getting their stomachs blown off with shotguns. At the same time, things never really get too out of hand because the clay sculpting technique employed is itself so unique and notable. As a result, “ParaNorman” is both a memorable and visually striking film — the type of movie that leaves you in awe.