Friday, August 19, 2016

"ParaNorman": review

I watched my second Laika production last night: "ParaNorman," the story of another eleven-year-old kid involved with the supernatural. Long story short: I liked this movie a hell of a lot more than I did "Coraline." "ParaNorman" is plenty weird and quirky, but those elements aren't nearly as much the focus of the film as is the plot itself: I found the plot of "ParaNorman" to be much more sensible and coherent than that of "Coraline." The rules of magic are easier to follow in this film; most of the ghost-and-witchery-related exposition is front-loaded at the beginning of the story.

"ParaNorman" tells the tale of young Norman Babcock who, just like Odd Thomas and little Cole from "The Sixth Sense," sees dead people: ghosts all over town who know that Norman can interact with them. At school, Norman is a social pariah because of his ability; at home, Norman's father is frustrated with Norman's tendency to make a spectacle of himself every time he reacts to supernatural events (including talking with Norman's dead grandmother, in a nod to "The Sixth Sense"). Norman's crazy uncle, Mr. Prenderghast, finds our protagonist and babbles that Norman will henceforth have the duty of protecting the town from the dead—a duty that Prenderghast himself had fulfilled up to now, but can no longer fulfill because his poor health has put him in mortal danger. Sure enough, Prenderghast dies shortly after his encounter with Norman, but his spirit finds Norman in a restroom cubicle and finishes the spiel he had begun while alive.

Norman is tasked with finding an old book—currently clutched in the hands of Prenderghast's corpse—and reading the text aloud at the grave of a witch who had been executed in the 1700s. Along for the ride is his tubby friend Neil; we also meet Norman's nemesis Alvin, Norman's sister Courtney, and Neil's hunky-but-dim older brother Mitch. Alvin, being a jerk, prevents Norman from completing the book-reading ritual before sundown, as Prenderghast had commanded. It turns out the ritual wouldn't have worked, anyway: Norman was at the wrong gravesite. Zombies—objectively real and not merely a seeming figment of Norman's imagination—erupt from the earth at the location of Norman's botched ritual; the malign spirit of the witch dominates the sky as an evil, tendril-clouded thunderstorm; everything goes haywire. Norman must somehow solve the zombie problem and the witch problem to restore order, and these efforts occupy the remainder of the film.

As I wrote above, "ParaNorman" was much more enjoyable than "Coraline" was. Part of the reason for this is that it was damn funny. There's plenty of visual and spoken humor for the kiddie crowd, but at least half of the humor is aimed at the adults in the audience, and it all works together smoothly. I laughed out loud throughout most of the movie, whereas I laughed not at all while watching the lugubrious "Coraline."* I also felt that the resolution of "ParaNorman" was much more emotionally compelling—a tribute to Norman's bravery and to the power of gentle compassion. In all, I heartily recommend "ParaNorman."

(My friend Steve Honeywell offers a well-written, and more detailed, review here.)

*Granted, "Coraline" is a horror-fantasy while "ParaNorman" is a horror-comedy, so there may be an unfair, apples-and-oranges aspect to this comparison. That said, I can only go by my experience, and laughter is one metric for how much I enjoy a film.

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