I had expected something much more modest from Paranorman. The trailers promised a pat if surprisingly horror literate kids film good for a few chuckles. The friends who had seen it told me to expect a well animated, if a touch on the nose children’s fable. A true horror epic that goes to some genuinely dark places with a visual palate equal parts Tim Burton, Mario Bava and Michael Dougherty, brought to life with painstakingly beautiful animation, a score that pays tribute to John Carpenter, and an ending so visually ambitious that it draws from The Fountain of all things was decidedly not what I had expected.
Paranorman has the small town, preadolescent specificity, fast pace, and just short of crude humor that marked the best of the 80’s Amblin films. Although a few moments of potty humor aside (excepting one truly inspired gag involving a dead man’s tongue) it feels much closer to a genuine all ages film than most of the non Joe Danted Amblin films ever did and needless to say much moreso than the grand majority of what American Animation offers. Like last years Rango (though in a slightly less aggressive way) Paranorman genuinely feels like if the target audience for it happens to be kids that is incidental. The story goes to some dark places, the imagery isn’t watered down and for all the jokes, gags and requisite family friendly message, there’s a real intensity to the film. Frankly I’m genuinely surprised that the movie managed to get a PG.
Like Rango, the animation and chacter design is much more aggressive and strange than the gentle rounded figures that American audiences are used to. The characters with their distended stomachs, rolls of flesh and mottled faces are pushed past the point of caricature and into the realm of grotesquery. The dead scarcely moreso than the living. (Though the animators have cooked up a fairly wide array of things to do with characters whose body parts and faces are not strictly speaking attached to them in any meaningful way.)
The animation itself is simply gorgeous though. I have a soft spot for Stop Motion only partly because it gives the obsessive compulsive in me the screaming mee-mees, but the expressiveness and smoothness (not to mention the creativity) of the animation in Paranorman is like nothing I’ve ever seen before. By the time it reaches its jaw droppingly ambitious abstract and beautiful finale I would argue that the film has surpassed even the master Harry Selick’s Coraline. Simply put this is the gold standard.
The film is as much a pleasure for the dedicated horror fan as the animation fan, whether it’s a surprisingly exact recreation of a shot in Halloween or Black Sunday or simply the beautiful autumn palate that the film has. In the careful clever use of its iconography and tone, Paranorman is simply the biggest hit to the sweet spot for horror fans since Trick 'R Treat.
I may see better movies this year, but I doubt I will see one that catches me so completely, blissfully off guard.
Postscript: I cannot help but be tickled that Patton Oswalt’s dream of a truly idiotic Gay character has come true.