This review contains details that, whilst not really spoilers, have so far not been advertised in the promotional material for ParaNorman. As such, you may prefer to read this after you have seen it. The short story is: I liked it.
The Salem witch trials were part of a moment in history that have been overstudied and exaggerated. The killings of several women and children, under the accusations of witchcraft, were undoubtedly terrible, but they have somehow entered the public conscious in a way that belies their impact (which, in the long run, was negligible). There seems to be a morbid fascination with the way a society can turn against itself and commit acts of violence even to the people within it; the result is that ‘Witch hunt’ has been popularised as a term and the town of Salem now has a tourism industry based on these killings. This macabre interest in the witch trials has now somehow worked its way into children’s cinema, as ParaNorman displays when it takes a turn towards darkness as it emerges that the witch who is responsible for the roaming undead was a little girl who got killed by her townspeople.
There’s nothing wrong with a kid’s film being scary. This writer has strong memories of being scared witless by Pinocchio as a child, but without any lasting detrimental effect on his life (that he’s aware of). So a zombie film aimed at a young audience is not, essentially, a bad thing. But ParaNorman has an uncomfortable fixation on death, both in the film as whole and with the lead character, that means the film really should be approached with caution if you plan on taking you children, or someone else’s. The Salem-esque (the town isn’t actually Salem, but the brilliantly named Blithe Hollow) plot device mentioned above adds an especially grim tone, and culminates with a conversation full of dangerous mixed messages about death and the afterlife. The film is funny and surreal enough that it may not be an issue at all – many children seemed to be enjoying it during the screening, and perhaps this is just the worries of an over-thinking (sort of) adult. The other good news is that, even if you aren’t taking kids, ParaNorman is a superb bit of horror-comedy, full of stuff for adults to enjoy, too.
The film opens with an homage to classic zombie movies, and there’s a nice joke as a screaming girl is set upon by a zombie so slow she pauses mid scream, confused. It’s the first in many a long line of nods and winks to genre tropes, keeping one foot firmly planted in comedy even when things get seriously scary. There’s some surprisingly gross body humour, and the decomposing state of the walking dead is used to excellent effect. For those who are bigger fans of zombie films than my rather uneducated self, there are doubtlessly tons more in jokes and references that will go over everyone else’s heads. It’s clearly an affectionately made film and, regardless of it being an animation, is successful as both a solid horror film and a comedy.
But the real appeal of ParaNorman lies in the stunning animation. In the review of Aardman’s Pirates! earlier in the week, the rather foolhardy comment was made that it will probably be the most visually impressive animation of the year. A few days later Laika’s stop motion wizardry made that comment seem rather ridiculous. The fluidity of the animation here – done through a medium well known for it’s jerky movements – is nothing short of astonishing. The characters, although they look highly stylised and caricatured, move realistically and it beggars belief that this was not done on computers. Even beyond the more banal motions like walking and sitting down, the animation retains a smoothness that means the action sequences are properly gripping. Spikes erupt from the ground, cars career round corners and buildings fall apart with great flair and energy. The action sequences here are as exciting, if not more so, than many a live action film; the directors making perfect use of the medium to capture scenes that would be almost unfeasible otherwise. It’s no exaggeration to say that ParaNorman sets a new standard of excellence in stop motion.
So it’s a fantastic slice of horror cinema, a superlative work of animation, and is really funny to boot. It’s just a shame that it leans too heavily towards darkness, creating a tonal ambiguity that means ParaNorman stops just a little short of brilliance.
Autumn 2012 in cinema is notable for an apparent effort in the big animated releases to scare kids senseless. Some of the biggest upcoming animated films look to set to give children across the nation nightmares, with plots rooted in horror, and styles clearly influenced by the genre greats. This isn’t especially new for animation – think back to the deeply unnerving sight of Coraline’s Other Mother going full-on evil, or the inventive scares of Monster House, and you can see that the medium is well suited to terror. Disney have long been in on this, too, with many a childhood scarred by Sleeping Beauty’s unforgettable villain Maleficent, or the truly haunting scene of Snow White running away to the woods.
So horror in animation is almost as old as animation itself. What is new with this current clutch is that they are all arriving at once. In the space of the next few months, Paranorman, about a zombie invasion, Frankenweenie, the story of a boy and his reanimated dog, and Hotel Transylvania, in which Dracula runs a retreat for classic horror figures, will all hit cinema screens round the country, and all of which feature the undead in some way. The only other big name animation coming out during this time is Madagascar 3, which is, hopefully, vampire and zombie free. So why the current move towards a genre that, more often than not, is not targeted at children? And will any of them be any good?
The answer to the second question is, of course, impossible to say until we’ve seen them, but the signs are good. Laika, the studio behind Paranorman, have excellent form in stop-motion terror, as their last film, Coraline, proved to be both beautifully animated and wonderfully imaginative. It was also a creepy, sometimes downright terrifying work of cinema, and if they can maintain all these elements for Paranorman, then we should have a treat on our hands. The one worry is that Henry Selick, the director of Coraline and The Nightmare Before Christmas, is not involved with this one, but the signs are still good and you can scare yourself silly when it comes out on September 14th.
Frankenweenie also looks like it could be worth our time, as this is going for a resolutely old school approach. Homaging the classic James Whale Frankenstein films of the 30s, the black and white, bolts-in-the-neck aesthetic display director Tim Burton‘s love of classic horror. I’ve sadly not seen the original short that Burton did before his career in feature films, but anything that sees him going back to his roots as a director, before he became an indulgent self-parody, can only be a good thing. At his best, Burton is a visually impressive, constantly imaginative director. At his worst he makes messy, plotless rambles with cliché ridden visuals and phoned in Johnny Depp performances. Let’s hope that the former turned up to direct Frankenweenie.
The other film in the trio of terror, Hotel Transylvania, is a far more straightforward, studio comedy that will probably have very little horror but lots of pop culture references. Sony, the studio behind Rio, have assembled a cast that would be terrible in a live action comedy – Adam Sandler, Kevin James and David Spade don’t exactly inspire confidence – but may do well as a voice cast with a good script. Some of the gags in the trailer are pretty sharp, and director Genndy Tartakovsky has done some impressive work with the Star Wars TV series, but it remains to be seen if this will be more than a run of the mill comedy.
As to that first question – why all the animated horror? – there are a couple of possibilities. Studios often mimic each other, Pixar and Dreamworks in particular have a history of it (Antz vs. A Bug’s Life, Finding Nemo vs. Shark’s Tale and so on), so perhaps there is some of that here. If something proves to be successful, then others will want to get a piece of the action. It could just be that Hallowe’en is coming up and studios LOVE to tie releases in with holidays (Legend of the Guardians, for instance, looks set for a nice wintry, Christmassy release). Yet maybe, just maybe, there is a desire to instil a bit of fear and backbone into a generation of kids softened by bland, threatless films and television. Whatever it is, it’s a curious trend that may just prove to be a bit too much for the younger demographic: parents may end up being very grateful for the primary colours and circus afros of Madagascar 3.