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Blu-ray Review: ParaNorman

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Interesting ideas don’t always make for great movies (this statement probably comes as no shock, but it remains true).  The notion behind ParaNorman is unquestionably interesting, however, the end result leaves more than a little something to be desired.

When I first saw trailers for ParaNorman, I was intrigued – here’s a stop-motion animation film that has to do with zombies.  Is this kids’ fare?  Is it for adults?  Is it a little bit of both?  Having watched the Chris Butler and Sam Fell directed movie, I can now tell you that it is indeed a little bit of horror and a little bit of family fare, but it’s a mix that doesn’t work.

The film’s hero, Norman (voiced by Kodi Smit-McPhee), is a middle-schooler who, and without any clear acknowledgment on ParaNorman‘s part, is Haley Joel Osment’s character from The Sixth Sense.  To paraphrase the now well-worn saying, he sees dead people.  In fact, he doesn’t just see dead people, he interacts with them, talks to them, and he understands that often when the dead walk the Earth they do so because they have unfinished business.

Norman soon finds himself off on a mission, Goonies-style, with his obnoxious older sister, Courtney (Anna Kendrick); his sort-of friend, Neil (Tucker Albrizzi); Neil’s older brother, Mitch (Casey Affleck), who Courtney has the hots for; and the school bully, Alvin (Christopher Mintz-Plasse).  Their quest is simple – read a book at a dead witch’s grave so that her curse of bringing the dead back to life won’t come to pass.

You wouldn’t think that a stop-motion film about zombies could border on the dull, but somehow ParaNorman does just that.  Once the wonder at the technical and creative wizardry involved wears off (about five minutes in, but make no mistake, the film is incredible on a visual level), all that’s left for the viewer is this uncomfortable story.  Are we supposed to find this funny?  Are we supposed to be scared?  Are we supposed to understand that the plot is something of a Frankenstein’s monster of other films – a few bits of this one and a few bits of that one and a few bits of the other, all sewn together?  In the end, it is funny at times, it is scary at times, and it most certainly is a bunch of other movies stitched into a single cloth. 

By the time the movie reaches its conclusion, you will certainly have admired the craftsmanship, and you’ll be impressed that someone was clever enough to put it all together, but you won’t really have enjoyed yourself.  Somehow, ParaNorman works out to be this super-clever idea for a film that just fails to have a screenplay to match.  It has the right characters, it has a neat idea, but it’s just boring.

Maybe though, having written that, the problem is that much more clear – it feels as though they spent so much time saying “wouldn’t it be neat if” and “oh how great would it be to” and wound up with a bunch of ideas that just couldn’t be properly strung together.   The film in fact is just the Salem witch trials meets Night of the Living Dead meets Goonies meets The Sixth Sense meets a ridiculous videogame boss battle of a finale.

What is completely fascinating about the movie is the set of special features.  These are divided into three categories for the Blu-ray set.  First in the special features are some early animatics, and last there are some moderately intriguing behind the scenes pieces that have a distinct studio polish to them.  In between those two items in the menu is a section entitled “Peering Through the Veil” and that’s where the really good stuff is.  Divided into a whole bunch of subsections, viewers can see just about every single thing it took to actually pull off the creation of the movie.  All your questions from how they put together the models to how it is actually filmed to what’s CGI and what’s “real” to how the actors did their thing gets answered, and answered in grand fashion.  It is a truly engrossing set of pieces.  Folks who want even more will want to listen to the feature commentary, and a DVD as well as digital copies (iTunes and Ultraviolet) are also included.

The release also does a superb job on the technical side.  You might not be able to make out each and every one of the hundreds of strands that make up Norman’s hair, but you’ll come close.  Textures on clothes and backgrounds are impressive as well.  Some of the dark scenes are a little too black to clearly make out what is occurring, but this may be intended.  The English DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track excels as well.  Even though you know the setting doesn’t truly exist, the audio helps convince you otherwise.  Crowd scenes are lively and fun, and some of the more special effects driven sequences also make great use of the surrounds.

In the end, I think ParaNorman is an incredibly intriguing movie until one actually watches it.  After seeing it, one will find themselves a little disturbed that something which holds such promise could fall so flat.  I would actually love to give the creative minds at Laika another shot at Norman’s world and tell a completely different tale using the same set of characters.  I am just convinced there’s something more interesting that can be done here.  

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About Josh Lasser

Josh has deftly segued from a life of being pre-med to film school to television production to writing about the media in general. And by 'deftly' he means with agonizing second thoughts and the formation of an ulcer.
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