Saturday, October 22, 2016

Stubs - ParaNorman

ParaNorman (2012) Voices by Kodi Smit-McPhee, Jodelle Ferland, Tucker Albrizzi, Anna Kendrick, Casey Affleck, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Leslie Mann, Jeff Garlin, Elaine Stritch, Bernard Hill, Tempestt Bledsoe, Alex Borstein and John Goodman. Directed by Sam Fell and Chris Butler. Screenplay by Chris Butler. Produced by Travis Knight and Arianne Sutner. Color. USA Run time: 92 minutes. Animated, Horror, Fantasy, 3D.

Norman Babcock (Kodi Smit-McPhee) is your normal 11-year-old living in small town, U.S.A.; Blithe Hollow, Massachusetts. He is the youngest in a family of four, with a mother, Sandra (Leslie Mann), a father, Perry (Jeff Garlin), and an older sister, 17-year-old Courtney (Anna Kendrick). He goes to school and even has a best friend, Neil Downe (Tucker Albrizzi). The one thing that sets Norman apart from pretty much everyone else in Blithe Hollow, is that he can see and speak to the dead.

Norman Babcock (Kodi Smit-McPhee) is the only one in his family
that can see and speak with his Grandma (Elaine Stritch).

The first time we see this is when Norman is watching a horror movie on TV and talking with his grandmother (Elaine Stritch), his late grandmother, something which his parents don’t believe. Neither does his big sis. The kids at school, with the exception of Neil, who has his own issues with weight, bully him, even going so far as to write “Freak” on his locker.

The other kids don't particularly embrace Norman's differences.

During rehearsal for the school play, which commemorates the town's execution of a witch three centuries ago, Norman is overtaken by a vision of the town's past and finds himself pursued through the woods by townsfolk on a witch hunt.

The only person who understands him is his slightly deranged Uncle, Mr. Prenderghast (John Goodman). While his parents discourage contact between Norman and his uncle, and despite Norman’s best efforts to avoid him, Prenderghast is a force to be reckoned with and won’t be denied. After rehearsal, Prenderghast runs into Norman and manages to tell him about the regular ritual that he will have to soon takeover in order to protect the town. Soon after he delivers his message, Prenderghast dies alone in his room.

Norman's Uncle, Mr. Prenderghast (John Goodman) is the only one in town who understands him.

During the performance of the school play, Norman has another vision, this time creating a public spectacle of himself. Father Perry grounds him as a result. His mother tells him that his father's stern manner is because he is actually afraid for him.

Norman's father, Perry (Jeff Garlin), and his mother, Sandra (Leslie Mann), are both concerned and scared.

But the next day, Prenderghast's spirit comes to Norman and tells him that the ritual he spoke about must be performed with a certain book before sundown that day. After making him swear to complete the task, Prenderghast's spirit is set free and crosses over. Norman is scared and reluctant to go, but his grandmother tells him it is all right to be scared. Norman then sets off to retrieve the book from 
Prenderghast's house and ends up having to take it from his Uncle’s cold dead hands.

Norman needs a certain book from his Uncle to complete the ritual.

Norman then goes to the graves of the seven (five men and two women), who were cursed by the witch. Only then does he find out that the book is merely fairy tales. But despite his determination, Norman is stopped by the school bully, Alvin (Christopher Mintz-Plasse). After sundown, even though Norman reads the stories, it is too late. A ghostly storm resembling the witch appears and the cursed dead rise from their graves. The zombies chase the boys along with Courtney and Neil’s older brother, Mitch (Casey Affleck), down the hill and into town.

Having realized the witch is not buried in the graveyard, Norman contacts the smart girl from his class, Salma (Hannah Noyes), who directs them to the Town Hall archives for the location of the witch’s unmarked grave. As the kids make their way to the archive, the Zombies come into town and are attacked by the citizenry. Norman and his companions break into the archive and are overwhelmed by the task and are unable to find the reference they seek.

Norman and friends enter the archives at Town Hall.

In a last ditch effort to finish the ritual, Norman climbs to the top of the tower, intent on reading from the book. But the witch storm strikes the book with lightning, knocking Norman from his perch and back into the archives.

In his unconscious state, Norman dreams about the witch and learns that she is Agatha Prenderghast (Jodelle Ferland), a little girl, whom like Norman is a medium. Norman watches helplessly while Agatha was wrongly accused when the town council from her time mistakes her powers for witchcraft. After their sentence, she puts a curse on them and Norman wakes up.

The town council passes judgment on Agatha Prenderghast.

Later, when Norman encounters the zombies, he recognizes them as the members of the council that convicted Agatha. The zombies, for their part, admit that they’re interested in talking to him, not in eating brains as everyone assumes. They want him to take up the ritual as a way to minimize the damage of their mistake. Norman tries to help the zombies take him to Agatha’s grave, but they’re cornered by the mob.

The other kids, led by Courtney, confront the townsfolk and convince them to back off, arguing their reactions are no different than the cursed townsfolk from Agatha’s time.

Zombie Judge Hopkins (Bernard Hill) rides with Norman’s family, guiding them to Agatha’s grave in the forest. But before they reach the grave, Agatha uses her magical powers to separate Norman from his family. On his own, Norman finds her grave and interacts with Agatha. In the spirit dimension, she has become vengeful and is determined to stop the cataclysmic tantrum she has been having over the years. When she asks him to leave her be, Norman holds his ground and tells her he understands how she feels as an outcast. He endures her assault and eventually convinces her that vengeance is accomplishing nothing and persuades her to stop.

Zombie Judge Hopkins, voiced by Bernard Hill.

He tries to get Agatha to think of someone who was kind to her and she recalls happy memories with her mother. Finally, having met someone who understands her plight, Agatha is able to find a measure of peace and crosses over to the afterlife. The storm dissipates and she and the zombies all fade away.

Norman is able to stop Agatha's (Jodelle Ferland) attack on the city.

Later, the town cleans up and Norman is regarded as a hero. In the end, Norman watches a horror film with the ghost of his grandmother and his family, who now accept Norman for who he is.

In the end, Norman is accepted by everyone in his family.

While ParaNorman has all the earmarks of a modern horror film, zombies, witches and a near apocalyptic event, it is not your usual genre fare. While elements of the story have been done before, it is rare to see a horror film done in stop action animation. Laika, the studio behind the film, is known for their stop-action animation. They burst on the scene with Coraline (2009), which, like ParaNorman, has overtones of horror. When you consider the time, effort and meticulousness that goes into these films, each is a minor wonder to behold. They are managing to do things with this type of animation that others do with CGI. Both are very labor intensive, but end up with very different looks.

A lot of meticulous work and detail goes into making stop-motion films.

Voice work is always hard for me to judge, as the actor’s facial expressions are missing, but all of the actors appear to hit the right notes in their performances. There is not one that necessarily stands out, though Kodi Smit-McPhee does manage to carry the lead. And, of course, John Goodman, or at least his voice, makes an appearance. Somehow it doesn’t feel like a real movie unless Goodman is included somewhere in the cast. He has turned out to be a very versatile actor over the years.

It wouldn't be a movie without John Goodman somehow involved.

Laika’s films seem to hit common themes, especially when it comes to the main characters. So far in their films there has been a kid who is left pretty much on his or her own to complete their “hero’s journey.” In Coraline, the lead character has been neglected by her parents, who worry about their careers, leading her to seek solace with the family from another dimension. In The Boxtrolls, it’s Eggs, an orphaned human raised by trolls, and in Kubo and the Two Strings, Kubo is orphaned when his mother is seemingly killed. They are all, in some way, outcasts and different from everyone else.

Norman is no exception; set apart from his family and most of the rest of the village by his ability to speak with the dead. Even though he has a best friend, Neil, and his family does eventually come around to support him, Norman must go alone on his hero’s journey to confront the witch and save the town.

And like all of their films, there is real emotion on the audience’s part. While you might not be close to the tears you shed at Kubo, there is an empathy that goes out to Norman, as we have all felt at one time that we were outcasts and that no one understood us. You feel for the boy and want him to succeed not only on his quest but in the life still to be lived. That is the sign of a really well told story.

A bit of a warning: animated does not always mean children friendly when it comes to Laika’s films. These are not Disney films or even Pixar. Even though the hero may be a young boy, ParaNorman is more “adult” than those and while an older child could attend, these are definitely not aimed at the youngest among us. There is a certain amount of maturity required to truly enjoy this film.

While ParaNorman deals with elements of the horror genre, it is really not a frightening film, nor does it need to be to work. The film is quite enjoyable to watch and within the guidelines above, can be recommended at Halloween or anytime for that matter.

Be sure to check out other Horror films in our Horror Films Review Hub.

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