Norman (Kodi Smit-McPhee, The Road) sees dead people: every day, whether he's walking to and from school or watching horror movies in his living room, the creepy green spirits of those long passed loom over the young boy. But he doesn't just see the specters; Norman speaks with them, shooting the breeze with a paratrooper stuck in a tree, conversing with a hippy who seems content enough in his haze, and occasionally relaying mundane requests to his family from their dead grandmother. Somehow, though, the small town of Blithe Hollow knows about Norman's dark gift, leading to them treating the boy like mentally-unstable oddball, where bullies pick on him and even his traditional family -- his handyman father (Jeff Garlin), his caring but concerned mother (Leslie Mann), and his ditzy popular-girl sister (Anna Kendrick) -- view him with a suspicious eye. But, as one can expect from a youngster-oriented paranormal adventure such as this, Norman's gift will soon become the thing that'll save his town from those other-worldly frights that make him an outcast.
ParaNorman is the latest stop-motion vision from the wheelhouse at Laika Entertainment -- the studio responsible for Coraline and production elements of Corpse Bride -- emerging from a script written by storyboard artist / designer Chris Butler. Under the co-direction of Butler and The Tale of Despereaux's Sam Fell, that script takes shape in a way that seems to know that the premise could be viewed as dark and morbid, so they dial up the youth-oriented mannerisms for a vibrant, sympathetic twenty-minute beginning. Norman gets chummy with his plump, equally-bullied friend, Neil (Tucker Albrizzi), who tries to turn his frown upside-down by inviting him to play and, yes, talking about his ability to interact with the dead; they look past each other's idiosyncrasies, leading down a weatherworn path towards a message about misunderstood and bullied kids. The characters around Norman tend to be unoriginal, little more than a mash of the types in The Goonies and Harry Potter, but they're handled well enough to make their purpose feel authentic.
As a mystery emerges of a historical curse plaguing Blithe Hollow, furthered by revelations from Norman's uncle, the unkempt Mr. Pendergrast (John Goodman), the material picks up the pace and grows spookier alongside Norman and Neil's budding friendship. That's where Butler's script excels: at creating a supernatural adventure with broad appeal in the spell it casts, replete with not-so-scary grotesqueries, ghoulish one-liners, and fond references to genre classics with numerous gags that only the older crowd will grasp. Occasionally, the characters get in the way of sustaining that mood, such as the limp and predictable fawning from Norman's sister, Courtney, over Neil's brawny dolt of a brother, Mitch (Casey Affleck), and the foreseeable antics of the token bully, Alvin (Christopher Mintz-Plasse). The essence bottled in what Butler's written, however -- a 300-year-old witch's curse, involving zombies and Norman's struggle with his own tormenter -- still capably sweeps them along for the ride, and not without amusing type-centered gags (or, unfortunately, a few easy shifts in temperament to suit the plot).
The blend of stop-motion and computer-generated artwork are what gives ParaNorman its distinct personality, though, and there's a considerable amount to marvel in Laika's doting craftsmanship. Less-focused on free-form artistry than Coraline, but not without a few robust inventive expressions, Butler and Fell are instead more compelled to sustain the illusion of a semi-practical environment and embellished characters within Norman's story, letting elements like the walking dead, mystical tornadoes, and wisps of green hand-shaped smoke effortlessly bleed into the picture. Once reality begins to distort, you'll find quite a few breath-snatching surprises; there's a scene in a bathroom stall where tiles rattle out-of-place against the wall around Norman before a magical explosion, which masterfully captures the intended mood with impeccable visual delights and sounds. Blithe's Hollow presents a spooky town with occasional eerie houses and gnarled wooded areas, an ideal stomping ground for accursed zombies to rise from the grave and torment townsfolk.
While the bulk of ParaNorman hits peaks and valleys of satisfaction across its 80-minute span, the ending really brings the experience full-circle in one of the film's high points. A push of mystical bombast and sensory delights bundles the story's central themes -- the persistence of bullies, being ostracized for being "different", and the hate it breeds -- and sends them speeding towards an electric finale that lands on a fitting, heartening outcome to the curse, if forced in how Norman's ability factors into the puzzle. The message that underscores the ending can also, perhaps, be a bit redundant and heavy-handed; Butler and Fell zero in on a clear-cut sensation they want the audience to take away about the misunderstood, bullied people that march to the beat of their own drummers, even though Norman's treatment gets this point across on its own. In the midst of a gothic adventure that's tailor-made for Halloween viewing, where the zombies and ghosts of the past walk the streets, it's not a bad point to reinforce, really.
Video and Audio:
Universal's Blu-ray presentation for Coraline remains a dazzler, emphasizing exactly how strong the format can be with robust colors and fine details in artistic flourishes. However, ParaNorman's 2.35:1-framed 1080p treatment trumps even that one, with a vivid and captivating transfer that's, quite simply, flawless. I doubt there's a shade from the rainbow that doesn't make an appearance in this production: blasts of neon greens, the orange-red hue from behind Norman's sunlit ears, and moody browns, olives, blues, and purples all faultlessly populate the image. Fine detail in clothing reveals razor-sharp textiles and the strands of hair in the models are crisp and tangible, while every stick of the environments -- small-town streets filled with shops and citizens, gnarled wooded areas with curved branches, and dark interiors of houses crammed tight with "stuff" -- create an impeccable environment. Top that with damn-near perfect contrast levels that show the utmost respect for detail in shadows and a complete lack of visible flaws, and it's, well ... a splendid, sumptuous piece of animation.
The 5-channel Master Audio track comes ever-so close to matching the precision of the visuals, though saying that it stays a step or two behind isn't negative in the slightest. The only place where it slumps is within a few patches of middling dialogue, hampered by thinness that makes it feel a little airier than it should. Outside of that, we're working with a stellar sonic treatment here: John Brion's score stretches its legs to all sides of the surround stage, not dominating sound elements as they mingle with the music, while atmospheric elements like echoes, footsteps, and rushes of magical energy thrive in their separation among the full channel spread. The dialogue also exhibits sharp awareness of separation in the front end of the design, consistently allowing conversations to occupy in-between spots for an immersive experience. Fluttering bathroom tiles, the slam of a hand against a locker, and the shocks of electricity offer, snappy, crisp sound elements, and more than a few points involving a ramshackle van test the lower-frequency elements. All in all, it's a clear, versatile track with plenty of force.
Commentary with Chris Butler and Sam Fell:
So much work goes into making one of Laika's brand of animated films -- computer-generated work, stop-motion work, production design, framing, lighting, the works -- so it'd be reasonable to assume that the filmmakers might have a thing or two to say about the process. Boy, do Butler and Fell not disappoint; in a barrage of unpretentious, conversational chatter, they dig into the details of the film's cornucopia of complicated shots. Revealing camera tricks (such as propping models on boxes), the difficulty of certain models (such as Alvin's), references to specific horror movies and photographers, and the comparison of digital versus practical effects, their rhythm is consistent and revelatory. On top of that, Butler also focuses on his writing and his intended techniques, and each scene triggers thought after thought about topics to explore ... and they have a little bit of fun with hidden details, such as the brand of underwear Mr. Prendergast is wearing. Terrific stuff.
Peering Through the Veil: Behind the Scenes of ParaNorman (40:49, HD):
A series of nine chapters encapsulate this making-of feature, which includes interviews with directors Butler and Fell and the artists behind the film, beautifully-photographed behind-the-scenes shots of the on-set work, and integrated split-screen / revealing shots -- character sketches, side-by-side comparisons between Massachusetts and Blithe Hollow, and preliminary storyboards / renderings. You'll get to see the intense detail that fits into the sets, shots, and character model to make them look off-kilter and detailed, and then the material shifts to the sound booth recordings with all the actors, constructing the characters themselves, .and focusing on the zombie models. The material bleed together really well across all nine of the segments, which are: That's ParaNorman, Creating a World, Voicing ParaNorman, Building Characters, Making Faces, Rigging the Game, Bringing the Undead to Life, Angry Aggie, and Weird and Wonderful.
On top of that, Universal have also included a series of three Preliminary Animatic Sequences (9:09, HD) -- essentially un-rendered deleted scenes -- that may or may not have been wise choices of things to remove due to their superfluous nature (the overextended scenes add character material, yet would've messed with the film' rhythm), which also includes optional Commentary with Butler and Fell. And, to polish things off, a series of seven brief Featurettes (14:10, HD) lasting about two minutes a piece have been included, focusing on a wide variety of topic for press-kit purposes. Also, Disc Two is a DVD version of the film, which contains all the special features available on the Blu-ray.
Fans of Coraline and Laika's animation studio will discover a slightly different but exciting deviation in ParaNorman: instead of focusing on something more abstract and cerebral, the artistry at-work here centers directly on creating a cohesive, enthralling horror-adventure with dashes of creativity adding to the eerie atmosphere. While fairly dark in premise, Chris Butler's story about a misunderstood boy who communicates with the dead isn't short on liveliness or entertainment value, crammed full of one-liners and visual flourishes as Norman and his friends scramble to rid Blithe Hollow of an old witch's curse. Sure, the characters can be seen as bluntly surface-level and the story's a predictably standard one, but the charm and inventiveness jammed into every frame elevate those elements into a gorgeous, bewitching little ode to horror films and bullied oddballs. Universal's Blu-ray delivers on all fronts, too, with nearly-perfect audiovisual elements and a hearty slate of special features, including a great commentary and a wonderful 40+ minute behind-the-scenes piece. Butler and Fell's film itself receives a warm recommendation, but the Blu-ray's quality nudges that perception a bit higher. Highly Recommended.