I am going to break my own rule for this review and jump into the 21st Century.
There are two things to explain upfront before I get into this review. First, while it is probably the biggest part of Halloween, I love the fact that it’s not just about scares and horror. Halloween is about fun, it’s about letting go of convention, enjoying yourself and being able to laugh. This is why I really enjoy films like ParaNorman, Beetlejuice, Monster House and even Hocus Pocus. They don’t take themselves seriously and pock gentle fun at clichés and the more serious films that have come before.
Second, I am an advocate of kids’ films being a gateway to a better and wider range of films. Some people I have spoken with have an odd belief that kids films are for kids and then you grow up and only watch “proper” films. To me this is madness, if you want someone to be interested in something you snag that interest when they are young and you can’t interest a child in horror or films in general by making them sit down and watch Halloween or The Exorcist! What kind of parent are you! – So we need films that act as an entry point and they have to be good or at least appeal to kids and contain enough to be enticing.
However the line between “children’s” films and “proper” films is blurring more and more with Pixar producing classics like Inside Out and Up. They are not alone though; there is another studio working to produce animated films that are an art form as well as good films. A small studio called Laika. They specialise in stop-motion animation and have contributed to the Corpse Bride as well as making Coraline, The Box Trolls, Kubo and the two strings and of course ParaNorman.
Their animation style is wonderful and they have it nailed. Ever since I saw 1981’s Clash of the Titans I have been fascinated by stop-motion effects. They don’t always age well but they always have a feel that is so appealing. I will admit that watching it in older films nostalgia comes into play but ParaNorman is an example of the animation style used to great effect.
The story focuses around Norman, a young boy that can see and speak to ghosts. He doesn’t think much of it; it has become part of his daily life. Others however think he is a freak and weird, none more so than his own Dad. He is an outcast in a town, Blithe Hollow, which lives on the back of the town legend of a witch that was executed 200 years before. The witch gimmick is in everything, including the school play Norman is forced to be in.
It turns out that Norman is not the only one who has the ability it’s a family trait. Moreover, it’s his destiny to use to the power to calm the spirit of the Witch every year. Otherwise she and her accusers, 7 elders that settled the town, will return from the grave to attack Blithe Hollow. Of course it doesn’t go to plan and Norman and his new friends are thrown into some Zombie mayhem.
The story has some really strong positive themes. Norman appreciates that being different is a good thing and that people should learn to understand who you are. There are also lessons about not making judgements based on fear as well as several swipes at American gun culture and other things. The script is pretty strong and it is boosted by great design and animation.
Despite being cartoonish in style all of the characters have physicality due to the nature of the animation, which makes them feel more real. The great thing about stop motion for me is that the sets and characters are actually being lit and affected by the environment. I do enjoy CG animated films but they still feel like a cartoon. These have texture and depth that cannot be replicated in a computer. Yes the stop-motion is cleaned up and special effects are added using CG but the basis is still the stop-motion figures.
The film is littered with little details that I notice more of with each watch. I would not question that this was a passion project for everyone involved in the making of this film.
This is all good but the real fun comes from the jokes and nods made to horror films. The film opens with a bad zombie film which includes a boom mic in shot and acknowledges the silliness of slow moving zombies. It’s a joy to watch and smile along with the film makers that clearly love the reference material, despite some of its more ridiculous aspects.
A couple of other nods worth noting are a shot taken directly from Halloween (1978) of the shape hiding beside a hedge and then disappearing. Also Several Night of the Living Dead references when the main characters are trapped in a library.
The film moves along at a pretty swift pace following Norman failing to keep the witch in her grave. The zombies chase after them slowly but with purpose and bump into some of the town’s folk. This leads to chaos in the streets as the residents don’t know whether to fight the zombies, loot the shops or shout at Norman.
In the third act some harsh truths are revealed and Norman is able to deal with the Witch. The finale is both eye popping visually and excellently emotionally driven. I am always drawn into this film and enjoy the journey and the pay off each time. I highly recommend this to everyone but especially to fans of animation or a family looking for a Halloween family film. Its great fun with some excellent voice work (John Goodman is having a blast as a crazy uncle) and genuinely funny moments. I wish there were more films like this that could start kids on the right path to enjoying the fun that horror films provide. Check it out.