One sentence synopsis: A lonely boy who can talk to ghosts must stop an undead witch from destroying his town.
Things Havoc liked: First of all, shut up. I know this isn't my usual fare, but my sister insisted on seeing this movie and I consented to do so after she insisted to me that all reviews pointed to it being a good film. Of course the last few times that happened resulted in Prometheus and Tron: Legacy... but we won't hold that against her (much).
Claymation films are not exactly my specialty, and invite (for me) flashbacks to The Nightmare Before Christmas and the more forgettable rest of Tim Burton's stop motion oeuvre (including the upcoming Frankenwenie, which I shall endeavor mightily to miss). Paranorman, however, is produced by Laika pictures, a company mercifully unconnected with Tim Burton's burgeoning madness, responsible for the film adaptation of Neil Gaiman's Coraline, and who chose to employ a convoluted process involving 3-D printers in order to bring this film to life. It certainly paid off. The film is gorgeously done, the animation smooth and crisp, with none of the stiffness that has bedeviled claymation since its inception. Movement, even violent fighting and action scenes, are accomplished effortlessly, blending in so well with the CG-generated elements that I very quickly forgot (save in one or two shots) that the film was anything but another animated film. Designs are stylized just enough to avoid uncanny valleys, but not so much that we don't instantly identify the archetypes being employed.
And speaking of archetypes, for a film that starts out ripping everything possible off from the Sixth Sense, Paranorman quite rapidly shifts gears into some strange combination of The Cabin in the Woods, Evil Dead 2, and The House on Haunted Hill. The core story centers around Norman, a lonely, sensitive kid who sees ghosts and is relentlessly bullied for it by his peers and ostracized by his uncaring family. Rather than devolve into a psychoanalytical tale as Sixth Sense did, however, this movie quickly becomes an adventure flick when Norman is tasked by his lunatic uncle (voiced by John Goodman) with preventing a Salem-era witch from returning from the grave to devour the town, in the course of which he is forced to team up with his fat comic-relief best friend, his angry older teenaged sister, her would-be boyfriend, the brainless jock, and the school bully. And just as we're settling into the familiar five-man-band horror territory (albeit with kids), the movie does another U-turn as Zombies attack the town, angry mobs are formed, and evil witches come to life, until we're in a pastiche of a pastiche and trying to decide what the film will rip off next.
And yet, the material, derivative as it is, is handled well overall, with several touches of self-aware cleverness that I found very well done. One of my favorite sections involves a group of flesh-eating Zombies stumbling into town and being spotted by the populace, only to be savagely beaten, Tom-and-Jerry-style, by the very townsfolk that in another movie would be panicking and being devoured. The assembly of our "heroes" and the process they go through to try and solve this situation is straightforward and makes sense, and the movie wisely sidesteps the almost obligatory scenes where "our heroes are not believed by the unthinking adults" or "nobody recognizes the threat except for the child-hero." Moreover, the voice acting, from various child-stars of Kick-Ass and Let Me In, is evocative and effective, and imbues the characters properly with life.
Things Havoc disliked: That said, for all its self-referential humor and archetype swapping, Paranorman is a kids' movie, and a fairly ham-fisted one at that. The sequence midway through the film where an angry mob of townsfolk prepares to hang or burn Norman as a witch is hopelessly contrived, and the "shaming the mob" speech that gets them to stop had me rolling my eyes. I don't mind basic storytelling, or kids' movies in general, but the standards for both are high, and there's just nothing about this story that elevates it above something seen many times before. The ultimate resolution of the movie, while logically and thematically consistent, is as predictable as a drum beat, and laden with a heavy-handed moral lesson that a better movie would simply have implied. Kids aren't stupid, and can pick up a lot between the lines without needing to resort to this level of by-numbers plotting.
There's also a real lack of focus in this film. Though the movie starts off like a Sixth Sense ripoff before turning to a new direction, the shift is so abrupt that promising concepts established at the beginning of the movie are never followed up upon. An inventive sequence early on in the film shows Norman walking down the street to school, talking and exchanging greetings with dozens of ghosts apparent only to him, each with their own prsonalities and implied stories. Yet once the plot begins moving, Norman scarcely ever sees another ghost save on the rare occasions where the plot requires him to. Similarly, the five-man-band story that seems to be building is dropped unceremoniously midway through the movie as Norman has to learn the necessary lessons to deal with the threat by himself, leaving all the other characters with nothing to do. As a result, the film feels choppy and badly unfocussed, bouncing from idea and style to idea and style without much regard for what has been established before. It's all logically consistent, but not thematically so, resulting in a movie that simply doesn't know what, ultimately, it wants to be about.
Final thoughts: Paranorman was a film I didn't expect much out of, and by that scale I was pleasantly surprised. It's a fun little movie, cute when it needs to be, hilarious when it needs to be, and biting when it needs to be (and sometimes when it doesn't need to be). I wouldn't call it classic children's cinema, destined to be remembered throughout the ages, but it's a harmless film with a good heart and a good bit of fun to be had in it. And honestly, what more can you reasonably ask for?
Final Score: 6.5/10