Film Review: ParaNorman
It must be odd to be Henry Selick, colloquially known as the ‘Not-Tim Burton’ who directed Nightmare Before Christmas. Selick’s production collaborators Laika here follow up their gothic fable Coraline with the gothic fable ParaNorman. The less we say about the gothic fable Monkeybone, the better. The fact that anyone outside of the folks who bother to do their research (p.s. we love you) could easily be forgiven mistake any one of Laika’s projects for those from Casa de Burton, is not so much an alarm bell as an indication of stale ideas. All the key elements are in place, so much so that listing them would be a very obvious ploy used by a critic to establish context for a film that appears to recycle formulaic elements from an auteur associated with a director he once worked with. Which is why we will now go through (in excruciating detail) all of the replicated elements of Tim Burton’s oeuvre in ParaNorman. You might as well skip Frankenweenie at this point.
An outcast youngster with a morbid fascination, a supporting cast of unsympathetic suburbanite caricatures, among them family, friends and fellow students. Horror cinema tropes and iconography employed as symbolic gestures of individualism, normalcy as conformity and the inevitable mob-mentality of the everyman. Now that these tropes have clogged up this review, it should be noted that they are used appropriately in ParaNorman’s case. Any idea can be justified if the story addresses the human spirit under duress, which thankfully this does. Regardless of the formulaic trappings, and it does so with enough gusto and verve to have the eight year olds in the audience nudging each other with anarchic glee.
The novelties here are minor and yet register as broad victories. The achievement of the vocal performances is in the fact that all of the performers are unmatched to character type, much to the many eyebrows bound to be raised by the time the credits roll (“wait, Casey Affleck played THAT guy?!”). The same can be said for the animation, Laika have now identified themselves as the new masters of stop-motion idiosyncrasy. The agitated ticks and grumpy teen head–cocking of Coraline is in full force with the characters here, observation has obviously played a major role in defining these characters as living kids. Additionally, the cinematography makes no mystery of the scale of the models, with the short depth of field always found in macro photography is played up front and centre without an ounce of doubt.
There is so much so admire with the efforts here, yet the overall impact of the film lacks staying power. The story hits all the right beats and yet cliché and familiarity bites it in the ass, the proceedings shift back into low gear and one can’t shake a sense of fatigue. Such a superficial realisation shouldn’t deter, but the fact is that as much as a Halloweenie good time was a delight back in 1993, wherein the edgiest this kind of family entertainment got was being stuck with Bette Midler and a pre-SATC Sarah Jessica Parker terrorising Omri Katz. In 2012, we’ve seen it all before and nostalgia to our childhood memories has become akin to salt to zombies.
With intermittent flourishes of edgy teen-angst gags and a flair for scenic wordplay that edges its way next to Aardman’s routine punning pastime (a hot dog vendor monikered ‘Witchy Wieners’ is gloriously and crudely riffed with the omission of a particular consonant), coupled with a sincerity that goes a long way to establishing an endearing character-to-audience rapport. There is much to be admired in ParaNorman as a goosebump spooker for the kiddies, full of colourful ghouls and ghoulish suburban caricatures. With that said however there is a nagging sensation that we’ve seen all this before, or at least Henry Selick has.