Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Film Review: ParaNorman and the Animated Film Experience

One of the keys to a long-lasting and healthy relationship is the ability to enjoy each other's interests, even if it doesn't come naturally. For ChinaCat Sunflower and I, this isn't usually difficult, since we're both passionate about film and music and a lot of our personal tastes align. When it comes to seeing a film in theatres, we're usually in agreement. Yes, I did kind of drag her to Predators a couple years ago, and yeah, she's dragged me to a few big-budget Hollywood type movies that I wasn't too excited about, but for the most part, we happily walk hand in hand into the movie theatre to see a good crime drama, action, or sci-fi. I bring up this point about couples because recently, I took a break on my usual bias against animated/3D films and invited my favourite girl to see ParaNorman (directed by Chris Butler/Sam Fell, written by Butler) in the theatres. There's a few other films out there that I'd rather see, but I knew that she's been intrigued by supernatural comedy adventure for some time, and I thought I'd treat her by not putting up a fight. And wouldn't ya know it, I had a good time.

Before ParaNorman, the only animated film I had ever seen in theatres was Toy Story, back in its original run, when I was 10 years old. Of course, I loved it, but that was back when computer generated animation was a novelty and I had never seen anything else like it. Since then, the only other animated film I'd watched from beginning to end was Monsters Inc., again, back when computer generated animated features were still new to the world. Skip ahead several years, and now it's not an exaggeration to say that we're just a bit over-saturated by animated (with the recent addition of 3D) film, so much so that I can't even keep track anymore. I used to be able to count these types of films on one, maybe two, hands, and now there are hundreds. And while these are usually regarded as 'kids movies', adults have taken just as much of a liking of these animated adventures, and the creators usually try and add a dirty joke here or there to keep our interest, and it must work.

Although I've only officially seen two computer-animated films, I have given a few other ones, such as The Incredibles, a fair chance. And every time, I find myself losing interest rather quickly. Most of the time, the storylines are geared towards a younger audience and there's a lot of style over substance, not much to really dig my analytic claws into. Of course, there's the option of just watching movies for fun, rather than constantly studying and criticizing them, but I have the brain of an English Major, a brain that needs to be stimulated by masterfully crafted plot, symbolism, and subtext. After a bit of pondering, I've realized that one of my favourite aspects of film is the performances of the actors. The way my brain is wired, I need to be able to read someone's face in order to connect with them. In the case of animation, I find myself having a much tougher time connecting with the characters and maintaining my interest all the way until the end. A lot can be said for the intricacies of facial expressions, and while there's usually talented actors voicing the characters, I also have a hard time relating the voice to the figure on screen. I'll be the first to admit that this is my own problem, and of course is not the fault of the creators of these films, just a personal down-side of the medium itself.

Leading up to seeing ParaNorman in theatres, I saw a trailer and a few commercials, and I'll admit that I was intrigued. I didn't expect to actually see it (until I had the impulse to cave and invite my girl), but I appreciated how morbid the film seemed to be, with the inclusion of ghosts, witches, and zombies. Plus, the character design seemed unique and creative, and the jokes in the advertisements showcased some refreshing wit on the part of the writers. You're probably expecting me to turn now, to say that I was totally wrong and that the film was a failure. But that wasn't the case. I liked it as much as I think I could ever like an animated film, and I was much more entertained than I initially expected to be.

Here's a quick summary: Strangely gifted kid Norman Babcock is a social outcast in his small town because he believes he can communicate with the dead. And he can, but nobody believes him. Then, we the dead start to rise because of a ancient curse, who do you think has to step up and save the day? That's right, Norman. The film makes it clear, right from the beginning, that it exists in a supernatural setting, as we see the ghosts that Norman sees, beginning with his deceased Grandma. The film also emphasizes that one of its major themes is social stereotypes and how we shouldn't be so quick to judge eachother. That being said, we have the misunderstood outcast, the chubby geeky sidekick, the lipgloss princess big sis, the bully with a soft side, the dumb jock, and the goofy parents. Usually, I'd roll my eyes at such an obvious set-up of characters, but I think that they all worked within the context of the film, since their stereotypical natures are both mocked and examined.

The storyline offers a lot of excitement, adventure, tension, and heart, but the main attraction for me was the style of (stop-motion) animation. The character design definitely follows it's own sort of physics when it comes to dimension and shape, and the result is that all the characters appear awkward, flawed, ugly, and just plain weird. Again, this is a movie about outcasts and stereotypes proving their worth, so if it was a bunch of pretty people battling the undead, the message would have suffered. Also, in the realm of special effects, with the action sequences and monster design, the execution was both exhilerating and unique. I can honestly say I've never seen any animated film (commercials count here) that looks quite like ParaNorman. I found myself overlooking the fact that I was watching an animated movie, and feeling like I was watching a film like any other. This is an impressive achievement. Quick note on the 3D aspect: As always, I felt like the addition of 3D was a cheap gimmick and didn't really add to the entertainment factor, it just made my eyes tingle, and not in a good way.

Going into the film, I hadn't my usual research about the actors involved, so I was equally pleasantly surprised by those I recognized and frustrated when I couldn't place the other familiar voices. Kodi Smit-McPhee, who voiced Norman, has proven his dramatic talent in films such as The Road and Let Me In, but here he gets to be a bit more of a kid than usual, albeit a very strange kid. If his role choices are any indication, I think Smit-McPhee is worth keeping an eye on as he makes the always difficult transition into being an adult actor. Tucker Albrizzi, who I'm not familiar with, voices Norman's sidekick Neil, who successfully provides a lot of the comic relief throughout the film. Leslie Mann and Jeff Garlin do an exceptional job of voicing the parents, and John Goodman is very recognizable and consistently loveable as the voice of Norman's like-minded uncle. Anna Kendrick does a great impression of an airheaded teenager with attitude, playing Norman's sister Courtney, and Casey Affleck (who I was shocked to see in the credits) voices dumb jock Mitch, the object of Courtney's affections throughout the film. Then there's Christopher Mintz-Plasse (who nobody knows by his real name, but everyone knows as Superbad's McLovin) as the typical bully Alvin.

Regarding the fact that ParaNorman is being advertised as a 'kids movie' or 'family film', I'm not sure about this choice. The film isn't strictly meant for adults, but I also wouldn't deem it appropriate for a 4 or 5 year old kid. First, the animation is actually quite scary and is violent in some parts, though it does help that the characters don't look like realistic humans. Secondly, there is a lot of adult humour that a typical kid wouldn't appreciate. I understand that most of these types of films try to include hidden jokes for the parents, but I found that ParaNorman was almost geared more towards teenagers, with a lot of not-so-subtle innuendo about masturbation and teenage lust. Then, there's the big 'shocker' at the end, when Mitch casually mentions that he has a boyfriend. But wait, this is a family film! Children shouldn't know about gay people! ...right? The fact is, the joke was more about Courtney's completely useless efforts to romance Mitch, not the revelation that he's gay.

This topic is worth it's own post, but to put it briefly, I feel that a homosexual character has just as much as of a place in a film as a heterosexual character. Being gay didn't define Mitch, his stupidity and athleticism did, the gay thing was almost a throwaway joke that you might not have caught if you weren't paying attention. But of course, close-minded parents are freaking out, urging others not to take their children to the film, cursing the creators for allowing such a terrible thing as someone's sexual orientation (wait, what if Mitch had said he had a girlfriend, they'd be freaking out too, right?) into a family film. My reaction to the 'I have a boyfriend' line was: Wow, nice. Very progressive. A sign of the times. And that's it. There's ghosts, witches, zombies, curses, violence, and murder, but a line about being gay is the one that gets people all bothered. What a world.

Since this is considered a 'family film', the moral undertones are clear and easy to understand. Being different isn't bad, accepting others is good, and loving each other is the key to solving any problem. Pretty easy to digest. What makes this film special for me is the unique character design, the adventurous atmosphere, and the fact that 'weird' kids are given a voice of their own. This is a great movie for any kid or teen who is interested in morbid tables of the undead, and is just as satisfying for an adult who still has a sense of humour and can appreciate creativity on screen, no matter how it's delivered. Overall, I'd recommend ParaNorman, just have an open mind and do a bit of research about what you're getting into. I won't all of a sudden run out and see all of the animated films that I've been avoiding for the past decade, but I will be more open to giving animated films a chance.

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