Discounting the crowd-dividing Brave, 2012 was indisputably one of the great years in animation. It represented a number of marvelous animated films including Wreck-It Ralph, Frankenweenie, The Pirates! Band of Misfits, and Rise of the Guardians. Among the great animated films released in 2012 was ParaNorman; stopmotion studio Laika's second film, after Coraline. And it's exactly what one would expect from the studio. Gorgeous animation, creepy story, refreshingly mature substance, and loads of entertainment.
Recalling 1999's The Sixth Sense, ParaNorman is about a boy named Norman who sees dead people. He talks with them all the time (much to the ridicule of his friends and family). But it turns out that Norman's abilities may be necessary in order to prevent his hometown from being destroyed by a resurrected witch with a curse that just won't die.
Like Coraline, ParaNorman is not for young children. It's not as adult, nor as frightening as Coraline, but nonetheless, children are likely to be frightened by much of what occurs in ParaNorman. On top of that, there is some surprisingly adult content here. But all of this works as a summation of why Laika's films are so important and delightful. This is a studio that really understands what animation is as an art form, and they use it to create films that are often better for adults than their kids. The boundaries in Laika's films are pushed much farther than they are in even Pixar movies, which are ideal for adult viewing, but great for kids as well. Films like Coraline and ParaNorman would send most children running from the room with tears streaming down their face. Considering the subject matter related to these films, that's a sure sign the material is working.
Though in a way, it's almost a shame that ParaNorman wasn't more kid-friendly, because there are some great messages here. ParaNorman covers loss, bullying, individualism all in one entertaining package. As odd as it is to say about a zombie movie, ParaNorman is surprisingly wholesome.
ParaNorman skews older in its humor as well. There are gags that any kids in the audience will enjoy, but many of them are a bit more mature. Unfortunately, there's definitely some low brow humor that feels beneath the Laika standards (some of it is even more juvenile than that seen in Laika's The Boxtrolls), but there's not enough of that to really hurt the viewing experience.
The animation is beautiful, but we would expect nothing less. The character designs are really fun too, but the strength in their writing is what really brings them to life. Norman is another one of Laika's successful child protagonists. He's likable and believable as a character, but he has depth that goes beyond your typical animated protagonist. Norman's mother is another surprisingly well-written character.
Likewise, the voice cast is very accomplished in their performances here. Kodi Smit-McPhee, Jodelle Ferland, Tucker Albrizzi, Anna Kenderick, Casey Affleck, Leslie Mann, Jeff Garlin, Elaine Stritch, Bernard Hill, Tempesst Bledsoe, and John Goodman make up a fantastic ensemble of lively characters that engage and light up and the screen.
Jon Brion's score, while not nearly as inventive as the film it inhabits (nor other Laika scores by Bruno Coulais and Dario Marianelli), suffices in it's general spookiness and occasionally inspired instrumentation. It works for the film, though I really do question the frequent use of an electric bass which seems dreadfully out of place at times.
Filled with colorful characters and intelligent writing, ParaNorman is a delight on every level. It has many laughs and wacky visuals, but what really brings ParaNorman to the heights of its Laika siblings is its big heart. There are many meaningful scenes here (Norman's confrontation with the witch near the end is riveting), and these really do elevate the picture. I wouldn't suggest it for the young, but ParaNorman is superior entertainment for teens on up.