'ParaNorman' Celebrates The Weird
In Laika's ParaNorman, the latest stop-motion animation feature from the studio that brought you Coraline (2009), no eyelash is batted — and no single hair is out of place — without a purpose. Stop-motion requires an inordinate amount of effort, and part of what makes ParaNorman such a wonderful film is that Laika's animators go to great lengths to ensure that their story about a boy who doesn’t quite fit in looks just right, from each of the 275 spiky hairs on lead character Norman’s head to every fleck of toothpaste that splatters off his teeth as he brushes in front of the mirror.
The youngest child in a family of four, Norman Babcock (Kodi Smit-McPhee) appears to have nothing in common with the rest of his bloodline. Norman's family is too busy to address his eccentricity: his teenage sister Courtney (Anna Kendrick) is constantly worried about boys, his mother Sandra (Leslie Mann) is too busing showering him with love to even see his problems, and his father Perry (Jeff Garlin) is too embarrassed by his son’s atypical interests to make an effort to understand him. So Norman isolates himself, electing to spend his free time watching horror movies in a dark den while his grandmother (Elaine Stritch) knits on the couch. There is a catch, though. Norman’s grandmother is dead — and while he can still see her and talk to her, no one else seems to.
But Norman’s real fear doesn’t arise from ghosts like his grandmother; rather, it's from being in the public eye, where he is labeled a “freak” at school by the bully Alvin (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) for talking to a host of seemingly imaginary friends. An early, and memorable, scene of Norman walking to school switches back and forth between what Norman sees — an old woman with curlers in her hair floating above the ground with a faint green aura — and what others see, which is merely a peculiar boy yelling “I’m late to school” to an empty space on the sidewalk. Norman’s only friend is another social outcast, the heavy-set Neil Downe (a hilarious Tucker Albrizzi), who finds Norman’s ability to speak with the dead not creepy, but cool. Neil defies the warnings of his older brother Mitch (Casey Affleck) to avoid the kid who sees dead people. But maybe Neil should have listened to his brother, as shortly thereafter the town kook Mr. Prenderghast (John Goodman) informs Norman of a mysterious curse that he and his reluctant family and friends must stop to save their small New England town from an undead uprising, all the while waving their puppet-string limbs and scrambling for their lives in arhythmic gaits.
ParaNorman’s subject matter is much darker than advertised, and viewers should know the film skirts unsettling territory with the murder of a young girl. But at its heart, ParaNorman is a fundamental story about acceptance, both of others and ourselves. The film’s visual presentation carries with it this theme as well: when Norman attempts to flatten his spiky hair before school only to see it jump back in place with a spring-loaded force, we are asked to accept — and hopefully celebrate — this fun, unique style, 275 deliberately spiked hairs and all.
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