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Mike Wilmington

By Mike Wilmington

Wilmington on Movies: ParaNorman


PARANORMAN (Three Stars)

U. S.: Chris Butler/Sam Fell, 2012

ParaNorman, a.k.a. Norman Babcock, mini-hero of the new 3D stop-motion animated feature that bears his name, not only has three dimensions but a sixth sense to boot. He sees the dead — and also talks to them,  watches sleazy zombie movies with them, plays with them, and tries to understand them and protect them from those occasionally obstreperous and definitely zombie-phobic creatures known as living, uh,  human beings. ParaNorman, or ParaNorm for short, is a kind of a macabre kid, but he’s also an adorable one — with his teensy vulnerable, 11-year-old stop-motion physique, his toothbrush-bristle coiffure, his glum but winsome voice (charmingly supplied by Kodi Smit McPhee) and his big sad dark cartoon-movie kid eyes.

ParaNorm lives in a Stephen Kingish New England town called Blithe Hollow, which 300, years ago, was the site of witch hunts and a witch trial, and a hung witch whose swaying likeness now is part of the Blithe Hollow‘s hard-sell witch self-branding (with streets full of witch cafes and witch shoppes and witch memorabilia, and maybe a take-out coven or two) —  and which also inspired the annual witch school plays, written and directed by the fruitily theatrical Mrs. Henscher (Alex Borstein), with a pilgrim part for Norm.

Don’t be deceived by his temporary Blithe Hollow stardom. ParaNorm is a picked-on little outsider locally famous as the kid who sees spooks (which nobody else can, of course), still watches TV with the greenish ghost of his grandma (Elaine Stritch) and is belittled or fussed over by the rest of his family, the Babcocks — fat macho papa Perry (Jeff Garlin), protective mama Sandra (Leslie Mann) and ditzy, dismissive older sis Courtney (Anna Kendrick). And he’s  otherwise made miserable by a gallery of other “normal” Blithe Hollowites which includes official toad-faced school bully Alvin (Christopher Mintz-Plasse), the flamboyant Mrs. Henscher, plus the abnormal nd extremely over-familiar Mr. Prenderghast (John Goodman). Then there are the Dead themselves, which include the persecuted witches and the judges who persecuted them and a tragic little girl.

In all this comically grisly stew of  the living dead and the obnoxious alive, Norm’s one faithful chum is his tubby, congenial schoolmate Neil (Tucker Abruzzi), a faithful, very nice little comrade. Neil, however, comes with a  hunk-dumbo and definitely Norm-unappreciative older brother, Mitch (Casey Affleck), who is also the not-too-swift heart-throb of not-too-sharp Courtney.

You can see that writer Chris Butler — who also co-directed with Sam Fell (Flushed Away) — likes big casts. (There are even more dead and live ones here we haven’t mentioned.) That’s all to the good, and it endows ParaNorman with that feel of boisterous life that many of the best recent animated features have — and most of the big live action movies don’t. It’s also a wonderful-looking movie — with the living-doll-or-toy likeability, depth and fullness that the best stop motion puppetry can endow — from George Pal to Ray Harryhausen to the great underseen Jiri Trnka to Nick Park and Wallace & Gromit.

The town is funny itself, a kind of All-Americasn gothic New England dark joke, and all of the people and creatures in it have lots of personality — both the voice performances and the character animation. Especially good, I thought, were Goodman as Prenderghast, Borstein as Mme. Henscher, Kendrick as Courtney (perhaps a revenge against all those bubble-headed blondes who may have beaten her out of parts), and Smit-McPhee as ParaNorm.

The movie’s mixture of the genuinely macabre and the adorable (and funny), makes for a pleasant, smartly cute (and  cutely smart) entertainment, probably as much of a ghastly treat for adults as it is for kids. Well, maybe even more for some adults than for some children, especially if the kids are very young and susceptible to nightmares of horror and corpses and the walking dead and bloody, rotting, loathsome  fear.

The filmmakers didn’t mention King as an inspiration for any of this, but they did cite both teen movie czar John Hughes and shockmeister John Carpenter, an odd but stimulating moviemaker couple. And we shouldn’t forget Tim Burton, and his stop-motion cohort Henry Selick. Butler was the storyboard artist for Selick’s marvelous stop-motion film of Neil Gaiman’s nightmare delight “Coraline,” which also came, like ParaNorman,  from the LAIKA studio. (Aki Kaurismaki fans will recognize “Laika” as the name of Marcel Marx’s pet dog in his movie Le Havre; Laika is also the name of the Russian cosmonaut dog after whom Kaurismaki named his own pet.)

This film isn’t the equal of Coraline, which mixed whimsy and the macabre and had the feel of a small classic. But ParaNorman, despite its unpromising title, has grisly charm and spooky wit and personality and nifty zombie/undead gags. I liked it a lot more than any of the Paranormal Activity movies — which I suppose isn’t saying much, because I dislike the Paranormal Activity series in toto. But ParaNorman activity, you know: that can be cool — as long as those undead guys don’t litter too many body parts on the sidewalks, when they‘re running away from the solid citizens.

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So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
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~ David Simon