Paranorman might revel in the ghoulish and the ghastly but nevertheless proves that stop motion animation is in the best of health. The second feature film from Laika Studios (who released Coraline), Paranorman follows hot on the heels of Aardman’s wonderful The Pirates, standing apart from the recent glut of CGI features thanks to its idiosyncratic look and morbid yet uplifting tone.
There’s a beauty to stop motion that is unrivalled: the process is achieved when tiny figures are moved, frame by frame, and when the animators’ tireless efforts are played back, the illusion of movement is created. There’s an organic, visceral feel to such animation; it’s an approximation of humanity, emotionally engaging yet stylised. The combination of this technique with Paranorman’s story of undead retribution proves one thing absolute: when you combine gorgeous animation with a witty, engaging narrative, the end result is magical.
Kodi Smit-McPhee (The Road; Let Me In) voices the eponymous character, Norman Babcock, a zombie-obsessed outsider who can see and speak to ghosts. Bullied at school and neglected by his family, Norman’s only friend is chubby Neil (Tucker Albrizzi), who is accepting of his condition. However, danger is brewing: Norman’s vagrant uncle (John Goodman) warns him of an impending witch’s curse that will bring chaos to the town of Blithe Hollow in which he lives. It falls to Norman to save the day – but is there more to the history of the curse than meets the eye?
Right from the off, Paranorman is infused with a love of horror cinema, as the title character relishes a grisly zombie movie with a naff synth soundtrack in the presence of his ghostly Grandmother (Elaine Stritch). Elsewhere, there are amusing references to a broad range of horror films, sure to have many an adult fan chuckling in recognition (Norman’s ringtone is Tubular Bells from The Exorcist whilst Neil turns up at one stage wearing Jason Vorhees’ hockey mask).
Yet for all the in-joke references, the movie bravely attempts to instil the entertainment value of horror in its younger viewers too. The lovingly created world of Blithe Hollow itself is proof of that: a landscape of haunted woods, blood red skies and other visceral clichés that pluckier kids will relish, even if it’s too scary for the sensitive ones. However, Norman himself is an immensely appealing and sympathetic character, and has the effect of mediating the spookier moments.
Ultimately, he is the average, spiky-haired loner struggling to find a place in the world. His affinity for the spirit world is also nicely optimistic: the movie reminds us that an awareness of death needn’t mean that one has to be afraid of it. At the same time, the movie straddles a lovely divide between poking fun at those who have passed on (a hilarious battle to remove a book from rigor-mortised fingers is priceless) and respecting them (the ultimate reveal as to the origins of the witch’s curse is genuinely poignant).
Expertly moving from knockabout comedy to character intimacy and intriguing historical context (Blithe Hollow’s Puritanical history comes into play as the movie progresses), Paranorman is no lumbering cadaver but a full-bore romp that is heartfelt and scary by turns. As easy as it is to simply bask in the visuals (Norman’s spiky hair with a life of its own being one of the many delightful touches), it’s a movie that has substance to back up the design, even if hardier kids are the ones most likely to enjoy it.