Blu-ray Review: PARANORMAN

2012 was a strong year for animated films. While computer animation rules the roost, it’s good to know that older forms like stop-motion are still being kept alive. Disney released Tim Burton’s Frankenweenie and Universal produced ParaNorman from Laika Studios, the same animators that brought us Coraline. Despite being stronger pictures, neither of those pictures did as well as Sony’s Hotel Transylvania, which boasted garish CG-animation and a big-name voice cast with Adam Sandler and Selena Gomez. Out of all three horror themed films, ParaNorman, is undoubtedly the cream of the crop.

Norman Babcock (Kodi Smit-McPhee) lives in the sleepy New England burg of Blithe Hollow and suffers from the same problem as the boy from The Sixth Sense. He sees dead people, all the time. In fact, they’re his only friends, from his late grandmother sitting on the living room couch to the female aviator whose parachute is tangled up in a tree. The people who are still living either openly mock Norman or avoid him like a leper. His mother (Leslie Mann) tries to understand, but his exasperated father (Jeff Garlin) seems like he wants to put Norman in an institution.

Norman’s gifts are called upon when he is visited by the spirit of his crazy Uncle Prenderghast (John Goodman). 300 years ago an evil witch placed a curse on the Puritans who burned her at the stake.  For centuries, a chosen few have kept the witch at bay by reading from a book. With Prenderghast gone, the burden is placed on Norman. When he fails, the dead rise from the grave to plague Blithe Hollow.

Right away, you are struck by the incredible set designs and puppet work of ParaNorman. The hardworking folks of Laika painstakingly crafted the film over a two-year period. The animation alone would win it style points, but there’s substance thanks to a script by storyboard artist Chris Butler, who also made his directorial debut here alongside Sam Fell (Flushed Away, The Tales of Despereaux). They’ve boldly made a kid-friendly zombie movie imbued with a palpable sense of pathos. A second act twist turns ParaNorman right on its ear when we learn that intolerance and mob mentality are far more frightening and tangible than a horde of the ravenous undead. The plot thickens in the third act when Norman learns the heart-wrenching truth about the legend of the witch. The filmmakers never forget to bring the humor with the funniest gag involving a slow moving race between the zombies and a vending machine.

The voice acting is superb with youngsters Kodi Smit-McPhee and Tucker Albrizzi portraying Norman and his overweight pal, Neil. They’ve bonded over their shared status as social outcasts. Anna Kendrick is terrific as Norman’s cheerleader sister, Courtney, and Casey Affleck is hilarious as Neil’s older lunkhead brother, Mitch. There’s also Christopher Mintz-Plasse as school bully Alvin, Tempestt Bledsoe as the sassy town sheriff, and Elaine Stritch as Norman’s granny.

ParaNorman draws inspiration from a variety of classic horror tales ranging from the works of George Romero to Washington Irving’s The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. There’s an amusing gag with a hockey mask ala Jason Vorhees and an opening prologue parodying the type of scary movies shown on late-night TV. The score by Jon Brion is a mix melancholy and suspense with the retro-synth sounds of John Carpenter.

Video/Audio: 9
The video is presented in 1080p with an aspect ratio of 2.40:1. The transfer is phenomenal and really allows you to enjoy the intricacies of the sets and puppets, such as the ruffles in Prenderghast’s shabby clothes or the rotted textures of the zombies.

The audio is presented in DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1. The sound is powerful with dialogue coming in crisp and clear.

Extras: 4
First up is an audio commentary track with co-directors Chris Butler and Sam Fell. This is an informative track about their influences, the work that went into the puppets, and the whole process of stop-motion.

Peering Through the Veil: Behind the Scenes of ParaNorman (40:49) is a detailed behind-the-scenes featurette that shows the animators at work, the voiceover recordings, and how they used CGI to enhance certain sequences.

The Blu-ray also includes nine brief featurettes hovering around the two minute mark. They are: You Don’t Become a Hero by Being Normal, A Norman Childhood, Playing as a Professional, Making Norman, This Little Light, Have You Ever Seen a Ghost?, and The Zombies of ParaNorman. These are focused more on the personnel of Laika, growing up as outsiders, and how the puppets are actually made.

ParaNorman is released as a combo pack with DVD, Digital Copy, and Ultraviolet versions.

Film Value: 7
ParaNorman is a remarkable achievement in storytelling and stop-motion animation. It conveys a powerful message about acceptance and forgiveness without being preachy or pandering. Recommended without hesitation for movie fans young and old.

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