As spookily hilarious as it is visually hypnotizing, 'ParaNorman' pushes the envelope of what is generally acceptable in children's animation without losing its heartwarming message of tolerance. Beneath the film's ghoulish spectacle of ghosts, witches, and zombies, the plot confronts serious concerns about bullying in its many variations and the realities of cruelty in history, essentially equating the horrible acts of the past to nothing more than another form of bullying — except with some very dire consequences. In a horror-comedy, such horrifying atrocities serving as the epicenter to an animated flick is both inspiring and a welcomed sense of originality. It could be a bit much for the youngest in the audience, but for the grade-school members in the family, this is the perfect mix of chills and laughter for enjoying with their horror-fanatic parents.
Dealing with a variety of mature themes is nothing new in this age of CG animation and contemporary children's entertainment. It seems a suitable predilection of the genre, one that has routed traditional hand-drawn animation into something quaint and almost passé. It can be argued the thriving dominance of Pixar giants paved the way for changing the genre into something both young and old can enjoy in equal measure, but the Oregon-based group Laika (and others such as Tim Burton) appears to be taking the possibilities a step further while also reviving animation techniques that are seen as old-fashioned and antiquated. The stop-motion animation studio made a big splash in 2009 when it released Neil Gaiman's 'Coraline,' another delightfully creepy tale confronting the nightmare-induced fears of children and learning to make lemonade of life.
In 'ParaNorman,' the script from Chris Butler, who also served as co-director with Sam Fell, takes a slightly darker tone as a pair of outcasts form a friendship out of a mutual understanding and together uncover the gruesome danger of discriminating against those we fear or misunderstand. In a small New England town that celebrates a horrible event of the past by turning it into a profitable tourist attraction, middle-school kid Norman Babcock (Kodi Smit-McPhee) is treated like the community's leper, not only by fellow peers but also within his own family, making the tale all the sadder. Made to feel defective for chatting with and making requests for the spirit of his deceased grandmother (Elaine Stritch) quickly wins sympathies, but also makes known up front this animated feature comes loaded with a deeper, more poignant slant within the drama.
Norman's gift as a medium is the source of endless bickering between his demanding father (Jeff Garlin) and his lovingly supportive mother (Leslie Mann). School kids, such as hideously pale Alvin (Christopher Mintz-Plasse), deride him for being different and his teenage sister Courtney (Anna Kendrick) joins in the ridicule at every opportunity, making it depressingly difficult for poor Norman to find a safe haven outside of his zombie-decorated bedroom. In comes Neil (Tucker Albrizzi), an upbeat and bubbly kid who takes the mockery of others like a true champ — no one will ever bring him down. As the 300th anniversary of the town's famous execution of an alleged witch approaches, the task of warding off an ancient zombie curse falls to Norman, thanks to his crazy uncle voiced by John Goodman. With the help of Neil's older brother (Casey Affleck) and his van, the kids join forces to combat the walking dead and the witch from ruining the town.
Discovering the heart of the matter which generates mob chaos and anger is a great deal of the shocking fun and excitement in 'ParaNorman,' a universal message of where fear of the unknown and of those deemed different can lead to irrational, regrettable decisions. It is a remarkable family film with exceedingly talented handcraftsmanship in the animation which marvels and astonishes in every scene, breathing new life to a quaint but painstaking technique of filmmaking while also pushing the boundaries of children's storytelling. The level of admiration and appreciation for the work that went into creating this impressive feat of movie magic ranges from the irony of the freakishly designed characters that treat Norman as an undesirable to the carefully structured story that finds heroism in someone's uniqueness. As this devilishly entertaining tale demonstrates, sometimes the real horror and the things we should fear are in how we treat one another, not the ghosts, zombies, and witches of legend and fiction.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
Universal Studios Home Entertainment brings 'ParaNorman' to Blu-ray as a two-disc combo pack with a code for an UltraViolet Digital Copy. The first is a Region Free, BD50 disc while the second is DVD-9 resting comfortably on the opposing panel. Both come inside a blue, eco-lite keepcase with a glossy, lightly embossed cardboard slipcover showing the same pic as the package's cover art. At startup, viewers are greeted by a series of skippable internet-based trailers, and then switches to an animated screen showing stills from the movie with voices and music.
'ParaNorman' haunts Blu-ray with a flabbergasting, reference-quality 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 encode that really shows off the amazing creativity and talent that went into producing the animated film. Individual freckles and wrinkles on the faces of characters are plainly visible, and each hair atop their heads is sharply distinct. The hanging flesh on the zombies' bodies moves with incredible realism, and the smallest, minuscule detail in the distance is as crystal-clear as the information in the foreground. The old-fashioned, wooden architecture of the town is discrete while the spooky forest towards the end reveals every line and grain on the trees and the surrounding foliage.
Taken directly from a digital source, the 2.40:1 image displays a lush, full-bodied color palette that beautifully splatters the screen from beginning to end. Much of the emphasis is on the softer pastel hues full of warmth and ornate, but primaries are still accurately saturated and sumptuous. Contrast is spot-on and comfortable, allowing for remarkable clarity and visibility of every minute detail of the town and the characters. Black levels are inky rich with precise gradational details within the shadows of low-lit interiors and the darker portions of the video, generating a splendid three-dimensional feel throughout. In the end, the freshly-minted transfer is extraordinary and gorgeous on Blu-ray.
Although not quite at the level of reference, this DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack is still just as impressive as the video with plenty of fun, demo-worthy moments in the last half of the movie. It's during this time that rear activity suddenly livens up the room with a spooky atmosphere, employing the discrete sounds of a small New England town erupting into complete mayhem. The angry cheers of a mob surround the listener while thunder cracks in the sky above and the wind howls all around. Several other, more subtle effects also bounce around the back speakers with amusing directionality and panning.
The musical score of Jon Brion offers some very light bleeds in the background as well, but for a majority of the runtime, attention is maintained in the fronts. With lots of warmth and exceptional fidelity, imaging feels broad and creates a terrifically eclectic sense of space as off-screen activity is consistently convincing and highly engaging. The mid-range is extensive and room-penetrating, differentiation between the high and mids with precise detailing. A couple moments right towards the end, however, that clarity is somewhat lost and seems slightly distorted though it's hard tell if it's intentional to the design given the action and drama of the particular scene. Nonetheless, the low-end is surprisingly deep and powerful, adding an appreciably heightened level of intensity. Amid all the chaos and commotion, dialogue remains distinct and crystal-clear, so we never miss a single emotional beat.
An animated chiller like no other, 'ParaNorman' is a delightfully entertaining stop-motion feature that tackles some surprisingly mature themes on the cruelty and dangers of bullying. With astonishingly detailed animation work by the talented folks at Laika studios, this is a remarkable family film that finds heroism in the uniqueness and individuality of the main character. The Blu-ray arrives with reference picture quality and an excellent audio presentation that will have you cheering. A nice collection of supplements offers more to enjoy in this high-def package that will satisfy any animated fan. Highly recommended.
Portions of this review also appear in our coverage of Dunkirk on Blu-ray. This post features unique Vital Disc Stats, Video, and Final Thoughts sections.