Directed by Chris Butler and Sam Fell
Written by Chris Butler
Rated PG, 92 minutes
Cinemas everywhere (in 2D and 3D)
Reviewer's rating: 4 out of 5 stars
ParaNorman is an astonishing feat of animation. In a story about a weird, small-town kid who can see dead people, it combines bold design, satirical humour, a love of traditional horror and a rigorous, experimental, stop-motion technique. It's drop-dead gorgeous on screen, even with the murky effect of 3D.
The film was made at Laika Inc in Portland, Oregon, a long way from Hollywood. The studio is owned by Phillip H. Knight, one of the founders of Nike, who bought it in 2002. His son Travis worked there as an animator and now runs the company. They appear to be aiming to be the new Pixar, combining traditional stop-motion techniques - the most time-consuming and painstaking form of animation, in which sculpted models are manipulated by hand - with the latest computer technologies. ParaNorman shows how far they have come.
He can see dead people … psychic Norman as rendered by the Laika studio, which rivals Pixar.
Most of the innovation in modern filmmaking is in animation. Each new feature demonstrates how fast things are moving, but the technical brilliance isn't always matched by great scripting. ParaNorman is the full package.
Chris Butler's script is funny, daring in satire and surprising in emotion and characterisation - all the things I associate with Pixar. It has some roots in the dark and spooky traditions pioneered by Tim Burton and Henry Selick, but the sense of fun is more like something from Aardman in Bristol, home of Wallace and Gromit.
Everyone in animation borrows from each other, and many of them have worked across several of the big houses. Sam Fell, co-directing here with Chris Butler, worked at Aardman on Flushed Away. Butler was a storyboard artist on Corpse Bride, directed by Burton, and a supervisor on Coraline, directed by Selick. The latter, made partly at Laika, was the first stop-motion feature animation in 3D, and the first to use ''rapid prototyping'', according to a recent piece in The New York Times.
In stop motion, facial expressions are stuck on to models, piece by piece. It takes forever. In rapid prototyping, these facial expressions can be made in a 3D printer, which vastly increases the speed and variety.
What this means is that stop motion, a technique as old as movies, is not just able to compete with computer-generated animation. When combined with 3D, as here, it can surpass it.
ParaNorman has an astonishing look. It has better depth clarity than any CG 3D film I have seen. The design features vibrant colours and strong stylisation, both in backgrounds and puppets. The results are stunning.
Norman (voiced by Australian actor Kodi Smit-McPhee) is a lonely kid, surrounded by a family he hardly recognises. Dad Perry (Jeff Garlin) is fat and none-too-bright, worried that his son may be psychic. Mother Sandra (Leslie Mann) is a peacemaker, beaten down by life. Older sister Courtney (Anna Kendrick) is a blonde teenage nightmare. Norman's only comfort is his grandma (the incomparable Elaine Stritch), who hovers in the corner in a green haze. That's because she's dead, and he alone can see her. It's the same on his way to school: all the ghosts in town greet him as he trudges towards more bullying.
Norman's only friend is Neil, a cheerful fat kid no-one else will talk to (Tucker Albrizzi). They embark on an excellent adventure when a stinky old hobo (John Goodman) tells Norman that he alone can stop the coming disaster, when the ghosts of seven murdered people will rise up and avenge themselves on the living. Zombies will reign, he warns, before he carks it in one of the film's funnier scenes.
Be warned: the film targets boys age 10 or more, and it will frighten small children. The zombies made my skin crawl. That said, it is surprising both in its humanity and its cynical view of small-town narrowness. That's a trope of traditional horror, but it would never have survived the reductive process in major studio animation, where stories are sanded smooth so as not to offend. This one still has some teeth, along with severed limbs, rotting flesh and a powerful flaming finale.