**½/**** Image A Sound A Extras B
screenplay by Chris Butler & Sam Fell
directed by Chris Butler
by Walter Chaw Norman (voiced by Kodi Smit-McPhee) can see and speak with ghosts, which, if you squint a little, is only a metaphor for the kind of sensitivity that, in a boy, will invariably lead to about a decade of being brutalized by his disconnected male peer group. (Everything will change once he invents Microsoft or Pixar.) Norman's chief tormentor is barely-verbal Alvin (Christopher Mintz-Plasse, already past his sell-by date); his shallow and image-obsessed teenaged sister with a heart of gold™ is Courtney (the awesome Anna Kendrick), who has the hots for the captain of the football team, pre-verbal Mitch (Casey Affleck); and Norman's best friend, whether he likes it or not, is Mitch's weird, fat little brother, Neil (Tucker Albrizzi). The first problem of ParaNorman is that, in its rush to be sensitive to intelligent outcasts like Norman and Neil, it dehumanizes and mocks its tormentors, robbing them of the depth and complexity that would have resulted in a better film than this beautifully-wrought, entirely predictable package. (It's like a jack-in-the-box made by Faberge.) The only moment in which one of these "inside" characters is given any kind of depth (it's Mitch) is used as a sort of sitcom punchline that doesn't lend the moment gravity so much as it continues the road of taking sloppy aim at an easy target.
Norman lives in the unsubtly-named Blithe Hollow, a New England town with Salem's legacy of burning witches, making ParaNorman an anniversary horror film with a particular red-circled day on the calendar looming as the action begins. It seems that Norman's estranged, crazy uncle Prenderghast (John Goodman) shares Norman's supernatural gift and has, for decades, been responsible for keeping the spirit of vengeful witch Aggie (Jodelle Ferland, somehow typecast) and her legion of Bill Nighy-looking zombies at bay. When Prenderghast dies in a bit of slapstick that plays strangely in a film that's probably inappropriate for its intended audience, it's left to Norman to keep the unrestful at rest. Something goes wrong. And then ParaNorman--which begins as a sweet, strange, quiet little piece about a lonely boy who wants to be left alone with his late-night creature features and the company of his dead grandmother--turns into The Goonies minus the "diversity." It also, lamentably, turns into a diatribe against mob rule and judging books by their covers. It's jarring, because so much of it is so good, you want to forgive it for all the parts that are just bad.
Lacking focus, lacking smarts, ParaNorman takes a promising conceit and fumbles badly. What works about it is that prologue--up to the cheap yuks in a school bathroom, paid off in an unworthy gag--and a climax that manages to be both genuinely frightening and surprisingly touching. Aggie pays off the inherent creepiness of the Casper: The Friendly Ghost idea of a dead child's spirit: She's terrifying in much the same way the Billy Mumy character is in that "Twilight Zone" episode "It's a Good Life." (If the dimension she conjures recalls a platform video game, it's at least one with real stakes and the kind of psychological weirdness and complexity that's almost completely lacking from the rest of it.) Just the strength of those two passages is enough to make the movie a moderate success rather than a moderate disappointment. The irony of ParaNorman is that if it only had the same empathy for its antagonists as Norman has for his, it would've played with more depth or, failing that, at least less lazy hypocrisy--less blithe and hollow.
THE BLU-RAY DISC
ParaNorman arrives on Blu-ray in identically-configured releases from Alliance in Canada and Universal stateside. As the supplements show, technologically ParaNorman represents the stop-motion process at its most sophisticated, but there is still a bit of facial "chatter"--the animators' term for irregularities from frame-to-frame--that's most conspicuous in scenes lit like magic hour, perhaps because the beauty of said lighting really concentrates our attention on the image. Still, the 2.40:1, 1080p transfer is a gobsmacker, rich in colour and contrast; the movie was shot with Canon EOS still cameras at 24fps, and the glassy detail isn't overbearingly sharp. The attendant 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio is incredibly robust for a kids' flick, especially during Agatha's third-act "tantrum," during which the mix makes hairpin turns from door-rattling to vacuous quiet that the track navigates with aplomb. Jon Brion's melancholy score has warmth and spaciousness--it reminded me a little of Jerry Fielding's moody music for The Baby, minus the soundtrack warble.
Video-based extras begin with seven HiDef promotional featurettes--"You Don't Become a Hero by Being Normal," "A Norman Childhood," "Playing as a Profession," "Making Norman," "This Little Light," "Have You Ever Seen a Ghost," and "The Zombies"--running 2-3 minutes apiece. Most of the salient points therein are reintroduced and expanded upon in the 9-part "Peering Through the Veil: Behind the Scenes of ParaNorman" (41 mins., HD), in which animation studio Laika begins to looks like the coziest place to work maybe ever for a certain nonconformist breed, though one supposes it won't be long before it either bloats beyond the humble "Island of Misfit Toys" beginnings we see here, like Pixar before it, or goes bankrupt. My favourite parts of this doc are about the mad science involved in creating impossible effects in stop-motion without leaning too heavily on the CG crutch (like microwaving a CD to create lightning patterns), and there are some truly eye-opening statistics in a segment on replacement animation--for instance, that 3-D colour printing allowed the number of discrete character expressions to balloon from 80 or so to 250,000. This ain't your father's Rankin & Bass holiday special.
Continuing on, three "Preliminary Animatic Sequences" done in the Pixar thumbnail-sketch style have optional commentary from co-directors Chris Butler and Sam Fell. While only one of them (Norman's haunted walk to school) remains in the film, it got pared down for the same reasons of extraneousness for which the others were eventually deleted. Nevertheless, as Butler and Fell tout in their yakker for the movie proper, ParaNorman's pacing is unusually indulgent, for children's entertainment or any contemporary theatrical feature. I think it's okay that they pat themselves on the back for this and other departures from convention in a dialogue that admirably resists narration, although they don't say a whole lot that isn't covered more dynamically elsewhere on the disc. (They do, however, single out all the Easter eggs for the budding horror buffs in the audience.) DVD and Digital Copies of ParaNorman are included inside the keepcase--which, in Canada, at least, is green. Also available in the Blu-ray 3D format.