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Review: ParaNorman is in a Class All Its Own

There’s a reason very few studios make stop-motion feature films – like trying to out-talk Lena Dunham, it’s unbelievably difficult. Credit LAIKA - ParaNorman is exquisitely animated, with a depth of visuals and fluidity of motion that is truly fantastic. You’ve never seen stop-motion like this. The acting, the range of motion, the sets, the props, the costumes, and the attention to detail is apparent in every scene.

Bully Alvin and Hero-to-be Norman, from ParaNorman. Image courtesy of LAIKA, Inc.

Before I tell you why you must go see LAIKA’s new stop-motion tour de force, ParaNorman, I’m going to share some deeply personal recollections from my wayward past.  There is relevance here, I assure you.  Just give me a chance.  Many years, ago, when I was a young lad, I often faced the derisive taunts of my schoolmates, who took delight in calling me anything from “Farto” (a deviously pithy replacement of the first letter of my last name – I still get mail to Dan Farto and it pisses me off as much now as it did when I was 7) to “Fat Fuck” to “Jew.”   Many of these upstanding citizens grew up to become pillars of business, doctors, lawyers, disgraced investment bankers.  Two of the meanest became cops.  A couple from the pre-Jackass gene pool died in nasty drug-fueled car crashes soon after dropping out of high school. Even though Facebook was decades away from germinating in the loins of that you-know-which Harvard nabob (I can’t say his name or I’ll break into 20 minutes of angry muttering) and text messaging involved nothing more than a pencil, some paper and a reasonable sidearm throwing motion, very few of my friends and none of the various school bullies ever had any problems finding new and efficient ways of singling me out for their verbal abuse.  They didn’t need no stinking mobile computing devices to focus their bullying.  They were just naturally talented, like Michael Phelps of Jenna Jamison.

Granted, I dished out much more than my fair share of such harassment, but that’s not the point and won’t be discussed further.  

And while I never saw ghosts or goblins growing up, I do remember seeing my grandmother cooking all sorts of cow parts when she lived with us, parts that no one had any business eating, parts that usually get ripped from humans and eaten with gusto during zombie attacks.  Nothing makes a kid feel more divorced from humanity than coming home from school, looking for potato chips, only to find a Revere Ware pot filled with a calf brain bubbling away on the stove.  My grandmother has been dead for over 30 years and I still curse her and her Ukrainian homeland.

Living in a kosher house didn’t help me feel any more normal knowing my dinner might include a giant slab of boiled tongue or something mysterious wrapped in cabbage and braised in some nasty grey broth.  I made up for the culinary affronts from my formative years by learning to enjoy pork soon after I moved away to college.  Now, I eat pork often, in all its wondrous forms – I’ve been known to dry cure pork bellies and even put bacon on my cereal (just kidding, why ruin perfectly good bacon with baked processed wheat paste).

What is your point you ask? Don’t rush me.  The point is, many of us know the sting of being an outcast, of being shunned, of not being cool, or pretty, or popular, or good spellers. And while tales of disaffected youth litter most of HBO’s original programming as well as the shelves of the few remaining bookstores Amazon.com hasn’t stomped out of existence, ParaNorman manages to touch on many such issues, in a realistic and meaningful way.   Our culture loves winners but loves staring down the losers even more. ParaNorman is just such a story, a zombie-comedy-action thriller that at its core is a tale about a kid who doesn’t fit in, who gets bullied and laughed at by schoolmates and townsfolk alike, who stays true to himself and ends up saving the day. Did I mention it has zombies?

The film is exquisitely animated, with a depth of visuals and fluidity of motion that is truly fantastic.  You’ve never seen stop-motion like this.  The acting, the range of motion, the sets, the props, the costumes, and the attention to detail is apparent in every scene.  There’s a reason very few studios make stop-motion feature films – like trying to be wittier than Lena Dunham, it’s unbelievably difficult. In fact, it’s nearly impossible. LAIKA’s ground-breaking use of rapid prototyping 3D color printers gave them an unprecedented array of replacement faces for all the characters, which meant they could animate their expressions with a much deeper range of emotion.  Every ounce of effort those 300+ Oregonian artists / masochists put into this film shows up on screen.  The film is at times silly, funny, frenetic and poignant.  The voice casting and acting are great as well.  I applaud the decision not to cast anyone who has been plastered across TMZ, E! Online or PerezHilton.com over the last few years. Surely we’ve seen enough feature film stunt-casting lately to last a lifetime.    

So, to summarize my long winded and mostly irrelevant discourse, taunting is bad, unless you’re good looking and wealthy, in which case, you can taunt anyone you want and maybe even get a reality show if you’re nasty enough and fall down in front of enough famous restaurants.

Go see ParaNorman. Take a friend, preferably someone you can tease.

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