If, for some bizarre and oddly specific reason, you have been going out of your way to find an underdog in the film industry to root for this year, look no further than ParaNorman, the sophomore offering from Laika, the creators of the film Coraline.
Over the last few years, the animated film industry has been growing by leaps and bounds. At the vanguard of that expansion has been Pixar, followed closely by Dreamworks, the longstanding Walt Disney Animation Studios, and a handful of others that have released increasingly well-made animated films that appeal to all ages.
As the critical and commercial accolades from the big name animated films has grown, so too has the power and influence of the studios behind them. It’s tough to be an indie animated film studio. The creation process is arduous, and it is an endeavor that needs to be meticulously planned and created with patience — years of patience. For a new studio to have a chance at success in a field with such dominant competition, it needs to have devoted people involved.
That certainly limits the number of entrants for the best animated films of the year, but it also means that those that do make it to screen are created by passionate people, and they can definitely surprise you. And in only their second film, Laika has proven that it belongs with the big boys.
ParaNorman is a funny, charming, and somewhat dark story of a boy named Norman (voiced by The Road’s Kodi Smit-McPhee), who is blessed with the unfortunate ability to see the dead. It is something that Norman has grudgingly grown to accept, even though the cost has been high. His family thinks he is making it up; his schoolmates ostracize and ridicule him; and he has no friends among the living.
When Norman’s reclusive and moderately insane uncle (John Goodman) is nearing his death, he seeks out Norman and tells him that he has a duty to keep the town safe by holding back a 300 year old curse. Naturally, things go badly and Norman is forced to stop the events in motion.
Laika lined up an impressive group to lend their voices, which helps a great deal. Smit-McPhee takes on a heavy burden with Norman, but he manages to carry it well. He is joined by a strong cast throughout, even in minor roles. Anna Kendrick, Casey Affleck, and Christopher Mintz-Plasse all have their moments to shine in the support positions, but even minor roles are filled by the likes of Bernard Hill, Jeff Garlin, and Leslie Mann. There are no weak links in the cast.
There is a distinct melancholy vibe throughout the movie. Norman’s life is somewhat sad, and when the overweight and therefore mocked Neil (Tucker Albrizzi) tries to befriend him, they bond due to their mutual loneliness. This idea of isolation continues throughout, and just when the film appears to be following a very familiar and traditional path, it suddenly changes and abandons the Goonies-like action thriller motif for something much more thoughtful.
Holding it all together is the humor, which is consistent, and at times scathing and poignant. There are plenty of moments where the animation itself makes you smile, or the interactions are endearing, but ParaNorman is actually a very smart film that also manages to sneak in a bit of social commentary amongst the laughs and mystery surrounding the plot.
Of course, with any animated film, the most obvious question is how it looks. The animation is a character of its own. Most studios have their own distinctive style, and Laika is no exception. The style uses a 3D stop-motion animation, which gives it an occasionally jerky look, but it is also endearing in a retro way. Still, if you have been spoiled by the smooth renders of the Pixar movies and the like, then the occasional skip in the frame rate may stand out. Just keep in mind that it is a style choice, not a technical flaw.
As for the animation itself, it is attractive, at times even beautiful. There is something in the eyes of the animated characters that conveys real emotion. Plus, there is a style to it that makes things look just a bit off skew, something akin to a movie poster from the 50s. That gives it an intriguing and unique style.
It is both unfair, and yet inevitable that ParaNorman will be compared to the other big animated films of the year, most notably Pixar’s Brave, which is the most high profile animated film of the year so far. The animation in Brave may be a bit smoother and more appealing to a larger audience, but ParaNorman is a better film.
It all adds up to a film that can make you laugh and then surprise you with its heart. There are still several big animated releases due out later this year, but the film they now have to beat doesn’t feature the Pixar logo anywhere on it. Instead that honor now belongs to Laika’s ParaNorman.