Here’s the thing about ParaNorman: it’s not the family romp it claims to be. The ads push the child hero, and the kid-friendly animation, peppered with the expected amount of grown-up in-jokes. They’re not lying, but at the same time, they miss film’s overall tone: dark, creepy, and often quite sad. That’s actually a good thing – it helps make ParaNorman one of the more original animated features in recent years – but it might catch newcomers by surprise. Hit the jump for my full review of the Blu-ray.
In many ways, ParaNorman is the kind of film that Tm Burton forgot how to make. It owes a modest debt to The Nightmare Before Christmas, but quickly finds its own path to that wonderful Gothic vibe. Its hero, Norman (voiced by Kodi Smit-McPhee) sees dead people… and he’s actually kind of okay with that. It beats dealing with the oafish residents of his home town, who survive on a Z-grade tourism industry based around a local witch executed 300 years ago. Turns out, she’s not nearly as dead as folks would like, with plans to unleash a horde of Pilgrim zombies on the anniversary of her death. It’s up to Norman and his much-derided skills to save the day.
That’s all to be expected, with a sheen of cheerful gloom to lend it some Peanuts-style Halloween vibes. But the closer we look, the more ParaNorman displays a very grown-up melancholy. The town is depressed and dying, with garbage strewn across the streets, and houses sagging beneath years of neglect. Norman’s neighbors largely epitomize the Ugly American, and he himself experiences frightening visions of persecution and death. It all hits surprisingly hard – too hard for more sensitive kids – and the lingering shadows never quite lift the way they might in a more traditional film.
On the other hand, that gives ParaNorman a unique identity that sets it apart from many of its fellows. It doesn’t waffle on its vision or water down what it wants to say. Its characters display real flaws, and their mistakes create surprisingly tragic consequences. That gives its otherwise straightforward story plenty of dramatic heft, and invests us in the outcome far more than we might with a less careful film. It’s a good thing too: the plot stalls from time to time, lurching into brilliant moments quite unexpectedly before slowing down a bit more often than it should.
The stop-motion animation helps off-set that, buoyed by technical innovations that provide greater detail and breadth of expression any previous stop-motion production. It combines with the unique character design and grimmer-than-expected storyline to give ParaNorman a distinctive signature that holds up well to multiple viewings.
The new Blu-ray certainly does it justice with the clarity and sharpness of the image. As a labor of love, it reflects the creators’ painstaking attention to detail, and HD lets you see just how far they went. The additional features are modest but very informative, topped by a wild audio commentary from directors Chris Butler and Sam Fell. The Blu-ray also includes sixteen featurettes – notable for their focus on substance over fluff – and shots of early sequences that never were completed. Universal’s U-Control makes it easy to access them all. Only the trailers and TV ads are absent: not particularly missed, but notable since every third-rate transfer usually sticks them on as a given.
That’s pretty minor, however. It’s been a reasonably strong year for animation, with the best coming at us from totally unexpected directions. ParaNorman is the most welcome kind of surprise, making us all the happier for the fact that we never saw it coming. It shouldn’t replace Nightmare on anyone’s Halloween viewing list, it certainly makes for a solid double-billing. Teenagers and grounded older kids will definitely dig on it (it takes a few well-placed jabs at high school travails among other targets); just don’t be fooled into letting younger children take a look. They may never get to sleep again.