Many have argued that we have entered a new "Golden Age" of animated cinema. With the rise of Pixar we've also seen an incredible ascension of quality in the latest animated features. Pixar's incredible technology allows animated films to go visually into a realm that was previously unimaginable while still telling grounded and emotionally honest films that feel very rooted to the classical cinema style.
With computer animation dominating over all the other forms of film animation it is refreshing to see a studio like Laika produce a stop-animation film like Paranorman. What is even more refreshing is that despite its older animation style, Paranorman feels like the first animated film whose story has fully embraced the lives of children in the 21st century.
Norman, the titular character, is bullied at school and derided at home for his ability to talk to the dead, a skill which no one believes he can actually do. What makes Norman different than The Sixth Sense's Cole is that he actually enjoys the company of his supernatural friends, all of whom have some lingering purpose on Earth. He is happy to be the person that he is and has embraced his differences.
This portrayal of childhood feels honest and because of that realism the torment that Norman receives from the world around him is especially upsetting to watch. Bullying and self-reflection is on the mind of Paranorman's creators and every aspect of the film reinforces these concepts. Each and every character in Norman's world is a reflection of the person that he could become: bully, hermit, angry father, social outcast, etc.
The film shows just how quickly the abused can become the abusive through several incredibly smart twists that will cause you to reevaluate every idea that you've had about the characters in the film. Paranorman isn't interested in the simple battle of good vs. evil. Instead it dives headfirst into the murky swamp that lies in-between; where evil is just another shade of good.
Norman is only able to succeed by staying true to himself and utilizing his unique differences and kindness. As someone who was bullied as a child this is the film that I wish had existed for me to watch. I don't say this because it demonizes bullies (it doesn't) but because it humanizes them and shows how lingering hatred and revenge-fantasies only serve to create worse monsters: dehumanization, loathing, and bitterness.
Even better is that Paranorman never leans too heavily on these themes and ideas, choosing only to subliminally reflect them through its story and character. Like the best children's entertainment, on its surface Paranorman is an incredibly fun, engaging, inventive, and at times scary film about saving the world from the things that go bump in the night. Paranorman treats its audience like adults and dares to go places that might make some kids uncomfortable, but it does so in a respectful way that harkens back to the greats like The Goonies and E.T..
There is such precision and care that has gone into the animation, style, and character design that it seems almost effortless. Paranorman is a master-class in stop-motion animation that is always marvelous to witness. Never before have so many characters appeared onscreen at one time or so many objects interacted with each other onscreen. In 3D the film often feels like a living diorama playing out before your eyes.
The puppets themselves are wonderfully designed to reflect and often comment on American stereotypes, which Paranorman takes full advantage of subverting whenever it gets the chance. Half of the fun is watching the animation come to life and to see just how incredibly expressive these creations can be. When the villain of the film is finally revealed, Paranorman's design concepts kick into high-gear with a stunningly exciting and frightening character that pushes all of the film’s concepts, both visually and narratively, to their extremes.
However, there are downsides to the stop-animation format that keep Paranorman from always succeeding. With the massive amount of time it takes to create even just a second of film in this medium, Paranorman often lingers on images for just too long, when it should have shown a new image, and as a result the pacing can be slow at times. This pacing problem is sometimes coupled with an almost non-existent score and minimal sound design that make Norman's world feel hollow and empty. In a film that relies so much on its horror subject matter, it is discouraging to see an audio landscape that never adds anything to the film.
Either way, Paranorman is by far the best animated film to be released in theaters this year. It is a new benchmark for stop-motion animation as well as a wonderful look into the world of bullying that feels fresh and necessary for the children of the 21st century. It teaches kids the value of being yourself, maintaining optimism, reaching out to those around you, and best of all that even bullies are people too. If empathy is the backbone of good cinema then Paranorman's skeleton has a few extra vertebrae.
|3.5 / 4 Reels|