If Fox has proved anything with its horrid Ice Age franchise it’s that parents will take their kids to see any animated children’s movie. It only takes a studio’s unlimited checkbook to get one made, but it doesn’t take much effort to get thousands of little asses into theater seats. While every studio has their own animated division, what sets them apart is how hard they work to make a quality film; Focus Features is off to a rocky start.
Focus now has two animated features under their belt; one being last year’s Coraline, the other ParaNorman, which features the voice work of Kodi Smit-McPhee as a young boy who can see ghosts. Both films are remarkable pieces of art that, utilizing state of the art 3-D, take stop-motion animation to an entirely new level. The eye candy that LAIKA has delivered is revolutionary and so advanced that it makes Sony’s classic Monster House look like absolute crap. Point is, there’s no arguing that both Coraline and ParaNorman are beautiful films that are so colorful and mesmerizing that they can hypnotize a viewer into a trance. The problem is neither film has any substance; both are so incredibly bland that it’ll leave most adults jonesing for their cell phones. In fact, I was so bored that I walked out of a press screening of Coraline (I eventually finished it on home video). It almost happened again with ParaNorman…
ParaNorman appears to be built on the love for the genre, only it becomes increasingly obvious that the filmmakers are just using the new-found zombie popularity to sell a product. Don’t be fooled. Directed by Sam Fell (responsible for the decrepit Flushed Away) and newcomer Chris Butler, ParaNorman opens with a brilliant nod to the genre. The viewer is treated to a classic ’70s-styled animated horror movie that’s aged and treated like a period piece with a Goblin-esque score. The camera pulls out to reveal Norman watching the film with his deceased Grandma knitting in the background. We follow Norman through his day as he’s belittled and picked on my the entire town for claiming he can see dead people. Meanwhile, Norman is stalked by his uncle who believes Norman has the gift to stop a town legend, and curse, about a witch who will return to seek revenge for her murder decades ago. The curse is ignited when his uncle dies, and several corpses rise from the grave for mayhem. Norman and his motley crew fend off the creatures as they attempt to piece together the connection between the undead and the witch, who follows in the sky as a foreboding painting of doom.
As previously stated, the animation itself is stunning, but what lacks is the screenplay. Butler penned the story that is gummed down with incredibly bad jokes, obnoxious characters, and a bland moral that’s worked around the classic “Frankenstein” tale. Without any adult humor, it’s offensively tedious to watch, and it doesn’t help that all of Norman’s “friends” are terrible people (there’s the self-absorbed cheerleader, stupid jock, dumb fat kid and ugly/gross/obnoxious bully – you know, people you enjoy watching for an hour and a half). But what truly kills the movie is that it never feels like any of them are in any danger, especially because the zombies don’t hurt anyone (or anything – it would have helped tremendously if they at least ate the town’s animals or something). It’s also frustrating attempting to understand the town’s curse and why the witch would even concoct such a useless scheme. The entire plot is built around this moral pounding Butler wants to give the audience, but never wholly integrates it into the story.
In an attempt at brevity, ParaNorman is soulless art; on surface a beautiful piece of work that’s rotten at its core. This is not a movie made by horror fans, but one aimed at their pocket books. You’d be better off revisiting a classic like Tim Burton’s A Nightmare Before Christmas instead of wasting an hour and a half with this muddled mound of clay.