Sunday, August 19, 2012

This movie is not for the normal, usual, run-of-the mill cartoon movie fan. No.
If your kids who are less fans of Mickey Mouse and more fans of Jack from Nightmare Before Christmas, or your tweens prefer Dr. Who to the Whos in Whoville, or if your family decorates more for Halloween than for Christmas, this is your kind of movie.

If this sounds like you, you will be able to relate to and feel sympathy for the hero of ParaNorman. He is not like everyone else. He has trouble fitting in. So many of us horror movie lovers, and fans of zombie, vampire and slasher movies, can relate. Until lately, those kinds of interests just weren’t cool.

But Norman has another thing against him. He sees dead people. Toward the beginning of the story, this bullied and isolated outcast is informed it is up to him to keep a curse by a long dead and angry witch from bringing back the dead to overrun his town. Even as townsfolk continue to treat him with disdain, he bravely chooses to find a way to save them and send any straggling undead back to the grave.

We know horror in my household. Siren Spouse grew up fascinated by The Twilight Zone, and B movies with monsters and aliens. In college he created an art exhibit called “Alien, Like Me.” I, Cinema Siren, grew up obsessed with horror movies. Having accidentally stumbled into a showing of The Night of the Living Dead at 7 years old, I spent years illogically searching in vain for something that would scare me less than that black and white classic did. By the time I was 16 I’d also read every horror comic book I could get my hands on. It is clear that directors’ writer/director Chris Butler and co-director Sam Fell too are huge fans of the horror genre. Their love of it shows in every scene and in every choice, from the visual elements, to the music, to the references and winking nods sprinkled throughout the story.

The color palate used throughout the film, the images drawn as posters in Norman’s room, as well as the end titles, are influenced heavily by the style of artists like Basil Gogos featured in the pages of Famous Monsters of Filmland magazine, and Mars Attacks card artist Wally Wood. Musician Jon Brion’s score blends orchestral music with flourishes and bits recognizable from, among others, John Carpenter’s horror movies. This brings repeated chuckles to soundtrack music lovers in the know.

You could, of course, see the movie just for the new advancements in stop-motion animation studio LAIKA (of Coraline fame) introduces in ParaNorman. This movie is the first in which a 3D color printer is utilized to create replacement faces for its character puppets. Over 31,000 individual face parts were printed for the production. Norman, for example, has about 8,800 faces, as compared to around 100 for Jack Skellington of 1993’s Nightmare Before Christmas (a film which offered inspiration and is obviously a significant influence). The difference in being able to work on faces inside a computer instead of painting each face by hand, is that it allows for an enormous amount of additional detail. Directors Butler and Fell hope this detail will allow viewers to connect more with the characters and care more as they follow their experiences.
In case you think creating and building these stop-motion puppets is a reasonably easy task, allow me to point to Norman’s signature hair, in which there are 275 spikes. It is primarily made out of goat hair held together with hot glue, hair gel, fabric and super glue, as well as medical adhesive, make-up adhesive, thread and wire. Once made, it is hand finished with paint and human hair dye. There are 28 puppets that have been created for Norman alone.

The story is a strange hybrid of creepily weird and innocently sweet. One description offered the pitch: “It’s John Carpenter meets John Hughes.” Norman’s family and friends represent the usual coming-of-age movie cast, from the annoyed Big Sis and Impatient Dad, to the Chubby yet Optimistic Potential BFF and Meat-headed Bully Antagonist.

There are offbeat twists to the secondary characters he encounters, especially those of the dead variety. They will take a slightly bizarre sense of humor to really appreciate, but judging by size of the fan base for Nightmare Before Christmas, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and Evil Dead, it will likely find and win over the perfect audience. This strange little movie will definitely be added to many a perennial Halloween playlist.

As to the story, there is certainly enough character development to build compassion and connection to the lead character, which means his travails and triumphs are more felt by the audience. There are a few scenes in the movie that could have been edited, but all in all, the action flows briskly enough, all with a positive message of self-acceptance from which kids can always benefit. Though the anti-bullying platform that permeates the movie’s climax seems preachy, it suggests, somewhat subversively to younger alienated viewers, that long term it’s better to approach their own experiences with less bitterness and more forgiveness.

So, late this August, maybe you’d like to find something that will distract the kids (ones that don’t get easily scared!), who will soon blessedly be back in school. Something that reminds you fall and Halloween will be here before you know it. ParaNorman will fit that bill perfectly, and will entertain your whole family with its big, sweet, creepy heart.