Prior to the screening of ParaNorman audiences up and down the country will surely, like I, be treated to the trailer for Tim Burton's latest Frankenweenie, which opens this year's London Film Festival. Now, I've said it before and I'll say it again, Tim Burton is a terrible, terribly film-maker, one who has based his career on one idea and one idea alone. Tellingly, the best film with his name attached to it, A Nightmare Before Christmas, isn't even directed by him, rather Henry Selick, who also brought us Coraline and James & The Giant Peach, both excellent animated works. Frankenweenie looks like Burton's usual schtick, all the characters look the same as they have done before, it's all trying to be too macabre and Danny Elfman's phoned in a score. What I'm trying to say is that ParaNorman attempts to do a similar thing, except it does it about a million times better, and has basically rendered all Tim Burton efforts past, present and future more redundant than they already were.
Norman is a teenage boy who can communicate with the dead, and does on a regular basis, whether they be mobsters with their feet encased in lead, soldiers still thinking their riding on the battlefield, or even just his grandmother, quietly knitting and watching zombie movies with him. His peers bully him, his sister teases him, his Dad plain doesn't get him, leaving Norman to feel more than a little isolated.
Usually Norman is allowed to carry on his life in this way, without really bothering anyone. However, strange things are occurring. Norman is being haunted not by his past, but that of the Massachusetts town in which he lives, where centuries ago Witch Trials took place. As a result of one of these trials the town, and specifically the seven people who testified against the witch in question, were placed under a curse. The dead are going to rise, and only Norman knows how to avert disaster.
The 3D element to the film adds beautiful depth and texture to the sets and, rather than ostracizing you from the world of the film through alienating and off-putting gimmickry, instead invites you in and makes you empathise with everything so much more
On a surface level, the film is a wonderful homage to classic horror, a genre which I feel is in serious, serious decline in the mainstream. Jon Brion's pitch-perfect score echoes classic John Carpenter, and indeed one direct reference to Halloween had me laughing so harder that my girlfriend had to hit me and tell me to "get my shit together". Then there are the classic horror tropes that are brilliantly played with. A scene in which Norman has to enter a spooky, deserted house is given a brilliantly contemporary feel by way of Norman illuminating his path with the light from his mobile phone. On a similar note, when the dead do rise, rather than the townsfolk running for their lives and the zombies violently lusting for their brains, the zombies are paralyzed with fear upon witnessing the sex, violence and debauchery that is so at odds from their Puritan ways of 300 years ago, whilst the townsfolk just see seven staggering, lifeless corpses and think "Prft, easy, we'll piss this, get the guns". It's this attention to the minutiae of every character in the film that makes the film such a masterpiece.
And yet, the film doesn't stay in the realms of homage and pastiche. It is at time genuinely frightening and intense, the film's dramatic climax brilliantly handled in this way, and also deliciously dark, typified in the hilarious sequence in which Norman has to pry a book from his uncle's cold, rigamortis-stricken hands.
I would also like to take a minute to allow this film to stand as a defense for the much maligned use of 3D cinema. As with Coraline, with which the film shares a production unit, the 3D element to the film adds beautiful depth and texture to the sets and, rather than ostracizing you from the world of the film through alienating and off-putting gimmickry, instead invites you in and makes you empathise with everything so much more. There isn't an inch of the frame wasted, and the use of 3D brings the world the animators have created to life even more.
There is so, so much more I want to say about this film, but to say it would result in me giving away massive spoilers, and this isn't the place to do that. What I will say is that I can't remember the last time I've laughed so hard or cried so much in a cinema. Make the next film you see ParaNorman, it will give you faith that cutting edge technology can be blended with cinematic traditions to create something new, wonderful and long lasting.
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