Tuesday, August 14, 2012

I Talked with a Zombie

If life were fair (and it's not), stop-motion animation factory Laika would be putting out a film every year, and would be considered alongside Pixar as an animation house that consistently delivers the goods. And I know, two films in might be a little early to place Laika on what, for some, is rather rarified air, but when a company's first film is as audacious, thrilling, and moving as Coraline (2009), one tends to reflexively speak in hyperbole.

ParaNorman inspires similar ecstasy. Though it lacks the formal rigor and aesthetic looseness of their debut film, this is one of the more purely fun films you're likely to experience this or any other year, certainly in the animation division (a field once rife with invention that has become decidedly stagnant in the era of the computer). As the film begins, we are introduced to Norman, a horror aficionado who we immediately discover is a little out-of-place, in no small part because he believes he's communicating with his dead grandmother. It's not uncommon for kids to seek refuge in imaginary conversations, so we accept this flight of fancy, even if his parents are growing increasingly irritable with it.

And then we come to understand why. Not only does Norman talk to his grandmother, but in fact to all dead people, and this is in no way fueled by his imagination; this is very much happening. This lends his fascination with the horror genre a weird, intriguing duality, as if he came to love horror films to better understand himself (a theme to which many of us can relate, it should be noted). And while that may make his social life inconvenient, it does put him in the perfect position to attempt to prevent, and then later conquer, an ancient curse that will cause the dead to rise.

The film's first two-thirds are relentlessly funny, cleverly written and employing just the right visual references (a Halloween bit killed a certain section of the audience), intermixed with genuine gross-out humor (Norman wrestling a book from a corpse is one of the more unexpected, and unexpectedly hilarious, set pieces I've come across) and smart gags. "Where are the police when you need them?" asks Norman's father, a split-second before an officer rams her bike into his car and flies directly into him with the blink-and-you-miss-it comic timing only possible in animation. This is a film stocked with town looneys, exploding toilets, teenage stereotypes, and ghouls of all shapes and sizes (the monsters in this film are refreshingly grotesque). Never mind a rarified piece of suspense comedy that I will not go so far as to spoil here.

The family film has, like most genres, become more and more self-important as the years wear on, so I was not surprised by the turn it eventually takes, though I slowly sank into my chair as I came to realize the specific no-one's-really-that-bad conclusion towards which it was building. And I'd have come away with a significantly diminished estimation if it didn't deliver its rather banal and noxious message in an absolutely staggering display of animation and drama, one which never lets up on the thrills even as it becomes increasingly surreal and transportive. It's a huge, last-minute save that redeems a rather touch-and-go period.

One arena in this film that's sadly lacking is its third dimension. While Coraline remains the statement for 3-D cinema as a means for both thematic cohesion and visual delight, ParaNorman remains relatively tame, venturing beyond the screen only rarely. A few set pieces, such as Norman being chased through the forrest, really come alive, and it's always great to see stop-motion puppets and sets given that extra dimension, but the film never really takes it all the way, and I found this aspect largely unmemorable, a word I would not attribute to the film as a whole.

ParaNorman may pull its punches towards the end, but it remains a rare beast indeed, a film fueled by communal pop culture experience and familiar structure that somehow emerges from the other side a thing very much unto itself. When it's funny - and it often is - it's exceptional, and when it decides to go big or go broke, it becomes very rich indeed.

No comments: