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Universal Studios Home Entertainment
Blu-ray Disc Released: 11/27/2012
All Ratings out of
Review by Mike Long, Posted on 11/17/2012
OK, quick, name a children's/family film which has a scary moment in it. Well, that was easy, now wasn't it. Yes, for decades, kids movies have contains elements which the intended audience finds scary. Most Disney movies have that character or scene which makes the parent think, "Uh-oh, maybe I shouldn't have shown them this." or "Oh God, they're going to be up all night." Of course, it could be argued that this sort of thing is a rite of passage which prepares young viewers for more mature films, but there's no denying that awkward moment when a family film gets scary. However, we never see the converse of this. I can't think of a horror film which has a moment for the kiddies. (The end credits, maybe?) All of this leads me to the question -- why aren't their more horror movies for kids which would bridge this odd gap? 2006's Monster House tried to create this genre, but it took ParaNorman to create a true hybrid.
ParaNorman is set in the small New England town of Blithe Hollow, which is famous for its witch trials. Norman Babcock (voiced by Kodi Smith-McPhee) is a young boy who has an unusual ability -- he can see ghosts. And not just in graveyards, he sees them everywhere. Most of the townspeople have heard of Norman's power and consider him a freak. As legend has it, a witch placed a curse on a group of Blithe Hollow's founding fathers which states that they will rise from their graves as zombies. The seemingly crazy Mr. Prenderghast (voiced by John Goodman) approaches Norman to tell him that the legend is true and that it's up to Norman to appease the witch. Norman isn't sure what to make of this, until he witnesses the group of town elders coming back from the dead. Enlisting the help of his friend Neil (voiced by Tucker Albrizzi), his sister Courtney (voiced by Anna Kendrick), local bully Alvin (voiced by Christopher Mintz-Plasse), and Neil's brother Mitch (voiced by Casey Affleck), Norman realizes that he now has to stop the zombies, calm the townspeople, and find the witch's grave. Will he be able to overcome everyone's pre-conceptions about him in order to save the town?
On paper, ParaNorman doesn't look that impressive, especially in the story department. The plot borrows elements from The Sixth Sense (a boy who can see ghosts), Hocus Pocus (New England witch seeks revenge), and The Gate (young boy and his friend must fight evil to the chagrin of his big sister). And, of course, every movie these days seems to have zombies, so that prospect isn't very exciting either. The movie didn't get any help from a trailer which was weighed down by the song "Season of the Witch" by Donovan and looked very unappealing. In short, I was prepared for ParaNorman to be a disappointment.
However, I quickly learned that ParaNorman is an experience which works for two unique reasons. First of all, the movie is done in stop-motion animation. That may not sound all that impressive, but the work here must be seen to be believed. Coming from Laika Entertainment, the group responsible for 2009'sCoraline, this is cutting-edge stop-motion which incorporates many new techniques which werenít available just a few years ago. Because of this, they are able to deliver incredibly smooth animation which frankly looks too good to be stop-motion. The character design is also very interesting, as everyone here is clearly human, but they are presented in very odd shapes and sizes. The most clever aspect of this is Norman himself, whose hair is perpetually standing on end. These elements create a world which is both unique and inviting and it doesnít take long to get sucked into it.
The other thing which makes ParaNorman work is the movieís tone. Again, given the plot description, this could have easily been a straight-ahead R-rated live-action horror movie. Now, the fact that itís stop-motion doesnít automatically make it a childrenís/family film. And thereís no denying the fact that some of the scenes here, especially those with the zombies rising from the grave, may frighten younger viewers. But, on the whole, the movie somehow manages to walk the fine line between light and dark. We get a lot of horror imagery here, but the life pumped into the characters keeps the movie light. Normanís determined spirit, Neilís thick-headedness, and Courtneyís attitude help to balance things out. The pacing also works in the movieís favor, as the story unfolds rather quickly and there are enough twists and turns to keep things interesting. The movie could have easily been cynical and bleak, but the third act reveals a lot of heart. Itís not necessarily touching, but itís just sappy enough to make you smile.
Is it fair to label ParaNorman a ďhorror movie for kidsĒ? Thatís a bit simplistic, but itís not far from the truth. It may sound insane to recommend a movie with zombies and witches for the family, but ParaNorman is fun, funny, and warm enough for everyone to enjoy. Again, it may be a little too intense for kids younger than 7, but itís given the wacky stuff they show on cable these days, some may find this tame. I was pleasantly surprised by ParaNorman. This is the kind of movie which Tim Burton has been trying to make for years, as it takes all of the elements of a scary movie and makes it palatable for mass appeal.
ParaNorman has an awesome fake movie opening on Blu-ray Disc courtesy of Universal Studios Home Entertainment. The film has been letterboxed at 2.35:1 and the Disc carries an AVC 1080p HD transfer which runs at an average of 30 Mbps. The image is very sharp and clear, showing no overt grain (other than where intended) and no defects from the source materials. The colors look good, and while the movie is very dark, it's never overly dark and the black tones are rich and true. The image has an incredibly amount of depth, even in this 2D version and the puppets are clearly separated from the backgrounds. The level of detail is very good and despite the level of sophistication in the animation, we can still see some stuttering in the movement. The Disc carries a DTS-HD Master Audio track which runs at 48 kHz and an average of 3.9 Mbps. The track provides clear dialogue and sound effects. This is a dynamite track which shows a great amount of detail. The stereo and surround effects are intricate and show a nice amount of separation. We get specific individualized sound at times and the action scenes show a wide spectrum of sounds. The subwoofer effects are great, as they offer wall-shaking sound which doesn't overpower the dialogue.
The ParaNorman Blu-ray Disc contains several extras. We begin with an AUDIO COMMENTARY from Writer/Director Chris Butler and Director Sam Fell. "Preliminary Animatic Sequences" (9 minutes) offers three scenes in an early hand-drawn animation style. These are like animated storyboards and they give us an idea of the look of the movie. They can be viewed with optional commentary from Butler and Fell. Broken into nine segments, "Peering Through the Veil: Behind the Scenes of ParaNorman" (41 minutes) gives us a detailed look at how the movie was made. We get a look at the sets and the look of the movie. A nice amount of time is the voice actors, and we get comments from them and get to see them at work (including the session where they are asked to make random sounds). As one would expect, there is a detailed look at the creation of the puppets. We see how they are built and how changing their faces enhances the animation, and how computer technology has advanced the medium. The magic of making the puppets jump and fly is revealed. Of course, we are shown how the actual is animation is done (including the specific challenges of the finale), which makes the movie all the more fascinating. The Disc offers a series of seven "Featurettes" which focus on the talented people of Laika Entertainment and the making of the film. We hear from the artists, who discuss how their personal experiences shaped their approach to the movie. Butler and Fell are both profiled, and we get a nice time-lapse look at the building of a Norman puppet.
Review by Mike Long. Copyright 2012.