This summer has been full of big, glitzy animated movies from most of the major studios that have made tons of money but left audiences cold. None of them were particularly imaginative, entertaining or emotionally involving, instead choosing to coast on a steady stream of solid (if not exactly dazzling) images and a host of comfortingly familiar celebrity voices. And yet, at the tail end of the summer, along comes a movie proudly told in an old school animation style, from a tiny animation house and distributed by a studio known mostly for distributing arty fare like "Brokeback Mountain," that blows away all the slick studio confections both in terms of sheer visual wonder and (more surprisingly) emotional heft. Laika's stop-motion wonder "ParaNorman" isn't just the best animated movie of the summer, it's one of the best movies of the year. Period.
The movie begins in a kind of faux grindhouse style, with a credits sequence that gleefully apes schlocky fare from the late '70s and early '80s (complete with strained synth sounds). It's very clear that we're watching a movie-within-a-movie, but it smartly provides a quick shorthand to what we're about to see – it's knowing without ever being winky, reverential without ever falling into tired pastiche. Shortly it's revealed that the movie is some scratchy VHS zombie flick being viewed by our hero, Norman Babcock (Kodi Smit-McPhee), a funny little kid who has the ability to talk to ghosts (mostly his grandmother, voiced by Elaine Stritch) but not to actual people (like his parents, played by Leslie Mann and Jeff Garlin).
Norman is an outcast at school because the kids know that he supposedly talks to spirits, but finds a friend in Neil (Tucker Albrizzi), a chubby kid with similar social standing. During practice for a school play, one meant to celebrate the historic founding of the town of Blithe Hollow, Massachusetts, Norman is struck with a vision of the town forefathers about to put a witch on trial. The witch's trial and the curse the witch supposedly put on the forefathers have become part of the town lore (there's even a statue of the witch in the center of town). It's something that's joked about around Halloween (and put on as a school play), but what Norman sees shows him that there is a very real threat – the ghost of the witch will return, and unleash untold horrors upon the town.
While Norman loves horror movies and frequently communicates with the deceased, this is something that's beyond his pay grade, and when a nutty relative blessed (or is it cursed?) with similar extra-sensory powers (played with brio by John Goodman) comes to him with a similar warning, he becomes genuinely freaked. What if the witch does return? Will she unleash an army of the dead? And will Norman be up to the challenge and manage to avoid getting beaten up by the school bully (Christopher Mintz-Plasse)?
"ParaNorman" takes its time building atmosphere and a palpable sense of dread – the movie is gorgeous to look at, but never distractingly so. There's a great moment early in the film where Norman walks to school, greeting all the ghosts he sees on the way (including ghosts from other eras – like a '30s gangster wearing cement shoes). It's a scene that is so gorgeous and clever that it literally makes your jaw drop (the movie was shot by certifiable genius Tristan Oliver, who was also DoP on "Fantastic Mr. Fox"). But you also feel for Norman too – even though he's suffering from a very specific (and phantasmagoric) condition, you can easily identify with him. He's the kid who watches horror movies all the time and keeps to himself. Maybe you've known somebody like Norman. Or maybe you're just like him.
By the time the really freaky stuff starts to happen, involving the zombified versions of the town elders and a very upset and very witchy ghost, you're fully invested in this world. As the horror escalates, more characters join the fray, including Neil's older brother Mitch (Casey Affleck) and Norman's sister Courtney (Anna Kendrick), giving the movie a rollicking "Goonies"/"Monster Squad" feel, and while things get crazier and more otherworldly, the emotional content deepens, too. We can't talk about it without giving away some key things, but it's really surprising how emotionally resonant the movie becomes, and deeply satisfying too. (There's also an amazing joke towards the end that will certainly negate any chance of "ParaNorman" kids toys being stuck in kiddie meals at Chick-fil-A.)
"ParaNorman" was directed by Aardman veteran Sam Fell and storyboard artist Chris Butler (Butler also wrote the screenplay), and it's a remarkably assured and confident film. The movie could have been a mess, tonally, but the filmmakers maintain a steady and sustained (but never dull) mood. It's been described as "John Carpenter meets John Hughes," which we would definitely go with, especially given composer Jon Brion's generous use of vintage synths in the soundtrack and the movie's unblinking eye towards the sometimes abominably cruel world of adolescence. The movie is jokey but never at the expense of the characters and situations, and when it tips towards the very scary, especially towards the end, the results are genuinely frightening.
Even the 3D utilized for "ParaNorman" seems like a cut above. The technology has always served stop-motion animation well, emphasizing the tactile nature of the animation through truly spectacular dimensionality. That's also the case with "ParaNorman" – "Fantastic Mr. Fox" vet Nelson Lowry's eye-popping production design and Oliver's cinematography seem that much more impressive through the wondrous 3D effects, a perfect blending of ancient animation techniques with cutting-edge technology. In most cases 3D seems worse than superfluous; it's downright detrimental. With "ParaNorman," 3D glasses should be a requirement; the effect is essential.
It's the combination of the film's visual prowess and the genuine emotional content that makes "ParaNorman" such a singularly powerful experience. It would be one thing to just watch the movie, alight at all that you're seeing. But there's something deep and truthful that elevates it to another plateau. You'll wipe away tears while you're screaming for more. It's not only the best and brightest surprise of this long and dreary summer, but it's easily one of the best movies of the year, a complex and multifaceted blast. "ParaNorman" is a micro-sized masterpiece that wears its heart (and its half-eaten brains) on its sleeve. [A]