Laika’s amazing ParaNorman isn’t just zombie-fun and games

For their follow up to debut feature, Coraline, stop-motion animation studio Laika have created one of the most fascinating children’s films in years.  On the surface, ParaNorman sounds entirely straightforward: a young boy must save his town from a zombie uprising.  Yet, ParaNorman‘s plot is largely a brilliantly crafted method of delivering a progressive message to young, impressionable minds.  While writer/director Chris Butler has a clear agenda, his ulterior motives never derail the enjoyment of the narrative.  ParaNorman is as smart as it is sneaky, resulting in a true celluloid marvel.

Kodi Smit-McPhee voices Norman, a young boy who is a bit different from everyone else.  For anyone who has seen The Sixth Sense, the premise here may appear to be suspiciously familiar, but worry not; things get a lot more interesting. Norman’s parents (the excellently cast Leslie Mann and Jeff Garlin) are divided over how to deal with their son’s “gift”, with his father refusing to believe it’s true to begin with.  At school,Norman is ridiculed for being a “freak”, as fellow outcast, the rather plump Neil (Tucker Albrizzi), pushes him into an alliance- so they can be alone together!  This may sound ordinary enough, but once Norman proclaims “I didn’t ask to be born this way” the subtext becomes crystal clear.  It wouldn’t be fair to reveal how Butler and co execute this allegory, but trust that they do so masterfully.  Characters who have cast judgement are duly chastised, but without being villainised.  Despite presenting such a resounding case for tolerance, acceptance and understanding,Butler has ingrained it so effortlessly into Norman’s story and his efforts to counteract a witch’s curse, that it somehow feels both obvious and remarkably implicit at the same time.  It’s quite an impressive trick.

Equally as impressive is the animation on display.  While it may lack the aesthetic charm of an Aardman film, ParaNorman excels in other areas.  The character design won’t sell much merchandise, but the way the characters behave and react is entirely noteworthy.  Their often nuanced responses reflect how much dedicated effort was put into making this production come to life.  The “effects” used at various points in the film are spectacular, offering up some genuine ‘how’d they do that?’ moments.  The world of ParaNorman is richly populated and loaded with colours that pop off the screen.  On a related note, the 3D element adds little of any great note; but neither does it detract from any aspect of the film.

As for the actual entertainment value of ParaNorman, it shines on that front, too, as it’s loaded with sharp dialogue and gags.  While it’s not without a couple of misfires, the film remains quite witty throughout.  Butler’s work here both satirises and pays tribute to the great zombie flicks of the past, with a genuine love of the genre frequently made evident.  Given the animated nature of ParaNorman, it is surprisingly spooky, as reflected by its PG rating. ParaNorman also vastly benefits from its superb voice cast.  John Goodman’s voiceover work for Mr Prenderghast is grand fun.  The same can be said for Casey Affleck’s efforts as Neil’s big brother, Mitch.  The rest of the cast is rounded out with further great talents, such as Anna Kendrick, Elaine Stritch and Bernard Hill.

ParaNorman packs a lot of terrific entertainment into 90 minutes, whilst craftily conveying an important message to viewers, young and old.  Not to be written off as simply a kids’ flick, ParaNorman is dead clever cinema and a clear labour of love.  There’s plenty to appreciate and admire in the production and presentation of this cunningly insightful adventure.  ParaNorman may not have massive marketing machines or Hollywood superstars to bolster its profile, but make no mistake: this film will stand tall as one of 2012′s finest family-friendly films.  Don’t miss it.  9/10

ParaNorman reaches UK cinemas 14 September

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