Last summer, J.J. Abrams and Steven Spielberg made a big deal out of paying homage to old Spielberg movies from the late ‘70s and early ‘80s with Super 8, a clunky, retro-cinematic love letter that was so self-conscious in its movie-karaoke shot selections, it eventually started to feel suffocating.
ParaNorman, the wondrous new stop-motion animated feature from Laika studios (who brought us Coraline a few years back) doesn’t really feel like it’s striving to replicate one of those old Amblin Entertainment pictures. It just feels like one of them, full stop. This is a rousing little boy’s adventure full of big scares, goofy humor and a pointed message. I guess the best way I can sell you on this picture is by saying it’s sorta like what The Goonies might have been like, if The Goonies had been beautifully animated and not a terrible movie.
Kodi Smit-McPhee voices the title character, sad Norman Babcock, a lonely adolescent outsider with a Chia-pet hairdo who loves watching crummy old horror movies with his grandmother (Elaine Stritch). Only problem here is that grandma’s been deceased for quite some time. Much like Haley Joel Osment, Norman sees dead people, and they’re bloody everywhere. The swift economy with which screenwriter Chris Butler (who co-directed with Sam Fell) lays out this initial fantastical conceit is almost breathtaking, culminating in a long, gorgeously rendered walk to school, during which Norman shoots the breeze with ghosts from nearly every generation. (My favorite was the 1930’s gangster in cement shoes.)
It’s unfair to reveal too much more, as the surprise and delight of Butler’s screenplay lies in its sharp left turns. That’s the tricky, unexpectedly thoughtful thing about ParaNorman. The movie keeps upending your expectations and urging you to look beyond the surface.
This visual marvel is actually worth being gouged at the box office for the 3-D surcharge, as the quaintly hand-crafted stop-motion puppets have been seamlessly combined with CGI to make a movie that appears both modern and antique at the same time. I loved Butler’s and Fell’s commitment to the Spielbergian technique of shooting scenes from a child’s POV, meaning we’re eye-level with a lot of pot bellies and fat asses most of the time. It’s a gutsy move. Gutsy movie, too.