Review: Stop-motion ‘ParaNorman’ is smart, spooky, and beautifully animated

One of the dozens of ways that film critics and other people who write about movies do a disservice to the films that they cover is when they automatically refer to any film that is animated as a “kid’s film” or a “family film.”  Case in point:  Laika Studio’s gorgeous new stop-motion movie, “ParaNorman,” which has enough genuine scares and thoughtful material about life and death that I would have a hard time mounting an argument that it was aimed at children in any way.

Like many of the Amblin’ films of the ’80s, “ParaNorman” has a kid as the protagonist, but the film doesn’t speak down to its audience.  Instead, it tells a sometimes sad, often scary story about perception and institutionalized lies and the things that we are driven to do by fear, and it treats all of its characters, even the most cartoonish of them, with respect.  Whatever I expected from the film, it wasn’t something this smart and mature.

Maybe the problem is that studios so routinely lower our expectations when it comes to films that are made for younger audiences.  When I sit through something like “The Smurfs,” it would not surprise me to learn that the filmmakers actively hate children and that they approached the entire thing from a position of disdain.  There are so many movies that I’ve seen just since I became a parent that were marketed to my kids and that are rancid, stupid, crass pieces of garbage that I’ve almost assumed the default position that these movies are terrible until proven not terrible.  That’s an awful way to walk into any movie theater, and I’ll admit… I carried some of that attitude into “ParaNorman” with me.

Very quickly, though, the film asserts its own rhythm, its own voice.  This isn’t something that was cranked out to look like every other kids film this year.  There are no awful musical numbers scored with the latest hit from Beyonce, no smart-ass jokes that break the fourth wall simply to acknowledge that the filmmakers have seen some other movie.  This is a character piece, first and foremost, the story of Norman (Kodi Smit-McPhee), a young boy who feels isolated because, as far as he knows, he’s the only person who can see ghosts.   And he sees them all the time, everywhere he goes, many of them perpetually reliving their bad deaths.  He has an ongoing relationship with his grandmother, who has taken up residence on the living room couch, something that makes his parents very uncomfortable.  The problem is more that they don’t believe him than the thought that they’ve got a ghost in their house, and that’s the big problem for Norman.  He’s become “the weird kid” through no fault of his own, and he’s settling into a life of quiet loneliness.

Everything changes over the course of one long night that has to do with the history of the small town where they live.  The history of the town involves witchcraft, obviously modeled on Salem, and they’ve turned it into a tourist attraction.  Unfortunately, the version of history that they sell on postcards and t-shirts and even in the classrooms of the local schools is a fraud, and the only thing that has kept real evil at bay is the annual recitation of passages from a book by a local eccentric named Mr. Prenderghast (John Goodman).  As it turns out, he’s related to Norman, and he shares the same ability that Norman has, and when Mr. Prenderghast drops dead just before the annual event, it is up to Norman to take the book to the grave of the witch and read the story to her.

As you can guess, things aren’t that easy, and Norman ends up on a crazy adventure involving the school bully Alvin (Christopher Mintz-Plasse), Norman’s older sister Courtney (Anna Kendrick), the wildly enthusiastic Neil (Tucker Albrizzi), and Neil’s older brother Mitch (Casey Affleck).  By the end of the evening, the dead have risen and walked the earth, the witch has returned with her full powers, and the town’s history stands exposed for the first time.  There are places in the film where things get genuinely scary, and I realized about halfway through that there’s no way I’m taking the boys to see this.  Not yet.  Even though the film ultimately asks the audience to look past the things that scare us to see what they really are, getting there involves some stark imagery that directors Chris Butler and Sam Fell don’t shy away from.  It makes the film better, stronger, more honest about what it’s doing, but it also means that more sensitive young viewers might have trouble getting there.  We’re at the stage where we have to be really careful about which scary movies we show the boys, and while they love the trailers for “ParaNorman,” I’m afraid the middle of the movie wouldn’t work for them.

It worked for me, though, and a big part of what I liked about the film is the absolutely spectacular stop-motion work.  While there may not be many stop-motion films made these days, the ones that are made tend to be dazzling on a technical level.  “ParaNorman” is beautifully designed on a character level, and Butler and Fell have studied horror films well, creating something here that works both as loving homage and straightforward film craft.  The score by Jon Brion isn’t the typical horror score, and in choice after choice, the film takes expectations and subverts them.  I love that in a summer where some of the biggest and most hyped films have disappointed, a small under-the-radar charmer like “ParaNorman” has the ability to surprise completely.

Take the chance.  Don’t think of this as a kids film or a family film.  Instead, just think of it as a major statement from Laika Studios that, while Henry Selick is very talented, that studio has plenty to offer without him aboard, and “Coraline” was no fluke.  This is a tremendous, heartfelt, even personal movie, and one of the most overall rewarding experiences I’ve had theatrically this season.

“ParaNorman” opens in theaters everywhere August 17, 2012.