by Steve Habrat
This fall sees the release of three ghostly children’s films and the first one rising out of the grave is ParaNorman, a gentle and amusing adventure about a lovable loner who can chat with the undead. From the makers of Coraline, ParaNorman is such a high-quality film, both in animation and story, that I firmly believe that the upcoming Hotel Transylvania and Frankenweenie won’t be able to live up to this virtually flawless work of art. Despite the fact that ParaNorman is marketed as a morbid children’s film, ParaNorman definitely doesn’t skimp on the witty humor for adults and it even invites in some extremely efficient horror that would make most straightforward horror films blush. ParaNorman also scores big with the countless loving nods and tributes to B-movie and classic horror films (check out that opening), something for horror fans to go crazy over (I sure did!). Slightly more accessible than the surreal Coraline, ParaNorman is funnier, crazier, and a genuine crowd pleaser with imagination run amok, just like it should. And if all these touches aren’t enough to make you fall for ParaNorman, get a load of the hero himself, Norman, a shoe-gazing outcast who prefers to be alone with his ability. If you are even thinking about resisting against Norman, you can’t. You will fall for him the second you meet him.
Welcome to the small town of Blithe Hollow, New England, a place where it seems that every day is Halloween. It is here in Blithe Hollow that we meet Norman Babcock (Voiced by Kodi Smit-McPhee), a skinny loner with a shock of brown hair who can speak to spirits. His parents, Perry (Voiced by Jeff Garlin) and Sandra (Voiced by Leslie Mann), don’t know how to relate to him while his sister, Courtney (Voiced by Anna Kendrick), thinks he is a freak. At school, things are no different for poor Norman. He is the target of relentless bullying from the big lug Alvin (Voiced by Christopher Mintz-Plasse) and finds his only friend in the overweight Neil (Voiced by Tucker Albrizzi). One day, Norman finds himself confronted by his estranged uncle Mr. Prenderghast (Voiced by John Goodman), a man that Norman’s father has strictly warned him to stay away from. Mr. Prenderghast tells Norman that he has the same ability as Norman and that he needs his help to stop a terrifying curse that will be unleashed upon the town. Norman refuses to take him seriously, but after he suffers from a horrifying vision, Norman decides to humor his uncle. Unfortunately, it is too late and a horde of zombies have risen from their graves and begun attacking the town.
The grounded opening half-hour of ParaNorman easily overshadows all the supernatural pandemonium of the second half but that is not to say that I didn’t like the second half of the movie. I got a huge kick out of seeing Norman’s day-to-day routine of mimicking a zombie in the mirror while he brushes his teeth, trying to comb down his fright wig hairdo, and sitting in front of the television watching shoddy old horror flicks while his grandmother’s ghost watches in revulsion. It was these moments where Norman really stole my heart and really got me to root for the little guy. The second half of the film is when the explosion of horror references takes over and sends the film into overdrive for chiller fans everywhere. Everything from John Carpenter’s Halloween to Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead to George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead all the way to Lucio Fulci’s Zombie (!) are referenced while the soundtrack is a mix of pulsing synthesizers as colonial zombies lurch towards the trigger happy town. I must admit that I was a bit surprised to see all these horror references in a children’s film mostly due to the adult content of those films. I can imagine very few kids in the audience have actually seen those films and were actually picking up on these touches. For the adults who cherish these horror classics, directors Chris Butler and Adam Fell handle them with loving care and miraculously allow them to all flow together into an explosive witchy climax.
Then we have the vividly conceived characters that are all evenly developed, a rarity especially when there are this many at the heart of the film. Norman gets the most attention (obviously) but his best chum Neil is a hysterical little creation himself. Much like Norman, Neil is the target of bullies at school, teased for his weight, irritable bowel syndrome, and his choice of lunchbox (this only names a few reasons why he is an easy target). He enjoys passing time by messily munching on potato chips and freeze framing his mother’s aerobics video. Then we have Neil’s beefcake brother, Mitch (Voiced by Casey Affleck), who enjoys flexing his muscles more than his brain. Norman’s boy-obsessed sister Courtney is enamored with the muscular Mitch while reluctantly becoming Norman’s ally. Courtney bops around in a pink sweat suit while battling back gags over the things that come out of little Norman’s mouth. Rounding out the group of youngsters is Alvin, the flabby bully who tries to impress girls by break dancing to Dizzee Rascal (wait until you see the dance). Alvin tries to deface school property by writing his name in bathroom stalls yet can’t even spell his own name right. It is absolutely hilarious and touching to watch this group try to warm up to Norman even though he never once asks them to.
While it takes Norman some time to win over this rag-tag group of kiddies, the real obstacle is the adults, who are actually scarier than the zombies shuffling through town. Norman’s parents try desperately to level with Norman but all they end up doing is bickering back and forth over what to do with him. Norman’s father, Perry, tries to keep an open mind but he flies off the handle when Norman begins acting like Norman. Perry recoils at the very idea that people will talk about how odd Norman is while his mother, Sandra, takes a gentler approach to reaching Norman. Then there is Mr. Prenderghast, who overly levels with Norman to the point of freaking him out. The rest of the adults all quickly rally together to put down the zombies, who actually turn out to be just as misunderstood as Norman. There is a clever twist with them that I won’t reveal here but it definitely takes ParaNorman on an emotional detour. I will say that the adults end up being the real monsters because they absolutely refuse to listen to what Norman has to say.
I do have one minor complaint about ParaNorman and that is the hair-raising climax that seems to rapidly loose steam as it goes on. Things get a bit too far out in the end and I was left wishing that it would hurry up and end before it got too out of hand. Luckily it does and doesn’t do too much damage to the big picture. After the film ended, the buddy I attended this film with said that he found the film “refreshing” and I have to agree with him. ParaNorman dares to get a little weird and do it with such a wonderful sense of humor. I loved that the film was eager to act grown-up over just catering to the innocence of youngsters, which was the big problem with Pixar’s summer offering. This leads me to the PG rating slapped on the film. I’m still pretty astonished that this got away with a PG rating and didn’t get slapped with a big, bad PG-13. Things get freaky in ParaNorman and some of the jokes may make some adults bat an eye. Overall, ParaNorman kept me in stitches for its entire runtime while also consistently keeping me giddy over the raw inspiration that powers the film. Buggy conclusion aside, ParaNorman is a new classic that is just begging to be seen and revisited over and over. All that is required is that you bring an imagination, a sense of adventure, and a willingness to laugh. A new animated classic and easily one of the best films of 2012, so far.
The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993)
by Steve Habrat
Before Jack Skellington and Sally were mall goth heroes, they were a magical pair of claymation figures who just wanted to experience the joy and wonder of Christmas. Before all the heavy metal covers and the 3D conversions, their world was even more tempting, never needing an update and forever remaining timeless. The best of the claymation bunch, The Nightmare Before Christmas was a childhood favorite of mine, favored more around the time when Jolly Old Saint Nicholas plops down the chimney than my other favorite holiday. I always thought this film does capture the hypnotizing quality of Christmas, the one that makes us feel like children again. It really gels when Jack finds himself is Christmas Town, gaping at snowmen, elves, Christmas lights, and children snuggled in their beds. It painstakingly tries to re-establish that Christmas is about awe, not about the material fixation that now comes with the most wonderful time of the year. The film, which is the brainchild of producer Tim Burton (No, he did NOT direct this!) and director Henry Selick, is teeming with some of the most creative and bizarre animated characters ever captured on camera, and they do not feel like they are stretched or insipid.
The Nightmare Before Christmas ushers us to Halloween Town, a place where all the typical Halloween ghouls reside and emerge every year to give us the willies. Halloween Town finds a leader in the bony Jack Skellington, the Pumpkin King who is growing weary of the same old traditions every year. With his ghost dog Zero, Jack wanders off into the woods and stumbles upon a portal to another holiday dimension: Christmas Town. Bursting with excitement and inspiration, Jack hurries back to Halloween Town and fills in the locals about what he has seen. Jack and the monsters vow that they will give “Sandy Claws” a break for the year and they will put on Christmas. As Jack’s plans slowly fall apart and his idea grows more and more dangerous, it’s up to the lonely Sally, a ragdoll zapped to life by a mad scientist, to try to convince Jack to leave Christmas to the residents of Christmas Town. Across Halloween Town, the sinister Oogie Boogie has plans of his own for Santa Claus.
The Nightmare Before Christmas is a true work of art, one that works simply because it carries off the viewers imagination. It did mine when I was young and I still smile today when I see the film. The 3D conversion the film underwent was rewarding because we get to see the fine details to Halloween Town. The film was the brainchild of Burton and watching the film is like stepping into the mind of Burton himself. The inspired characters also make the visit to Halloween Town beyond memorable. There are mummies, a trio of glammed up vampires, a two-face politician, witches, the boogieman, and a band of devious and merry trick-or-treaters. There are nods to the classic Universal Movie Monsters while also opening the door to a brand new world. Seriously, the film commences with a door being opened and ghosts coaxing us into the darkness. It’s really quite exciting.
As far as musicals go, The Nightmare Before Christmas is a stand out as far as I’m concerned. This film gives us some of the most ingenious, cleverly written musical numbers you will see in an animated film. Just get a load of that opening introduction as the monsters all introduce themselves. It’s a horror fans dream come true and anyone who appreciates the value of lyrics will be head over heels with delight. You will be tapping your toes along with it. The song, “This Is Halloween”, is now a goth anthem, even getting a makeover from heavy metal artist Marilyn Manson a few years back. Other standouts include the dreary “Sally’s Song”, Jack’s inquisitive “What’s This”, and the trick-or-treater’s bickering “Kidnap the Sandy Claws”.
There are some minor flaws to be found in this film. The love story between Sally and Jack is a bit wobbly. It never really gets off the ground and we mostly see the love from Sally’s side. Jack seems relatively unconcerned with her and barely notices her presence at times. The film is a bit short, abruptly wrapping up just when things are really starting to grip us. Oogie Boogie only really shows up at the end, a character that is the very definition if cool. What aids us in overlooking the minor bumps is that the characters are just so nifty. Jack has become an iconic animated hero and you’ll be overloaded on cute when you meet his playful pup Zero. The Mayor of Halloween Town will keep the kiddies chuckling, especially when his mood alters and his face changes. Santa Claws is also quite creative, a huge red blob of a man, a version of him that only Burton could think up. Sally is a hopeless romantic and we feel her sorrow. The most astonishing aspect is the complexities in Jack. He’s a control freak and at times a bit domineering, yet we root for him to see the error of his ways. Perhaps that is meant to force us to reflect on our own approach to Christmas. Have we missed the point of this Holiday? Are we any different than Jack? According to Burton and Selick, not really.
The Nightmare Before Christmas may prove to be a bit too eerie for some young viewers, but with films like Corpse Bride and Coraline (Also directed by Selick) on the market, that’s up for you to decide. It’s a shame that goth kids have marked it as their own, as there really is something for everyone to enjoy within the film. I think that Jack stands for much more than as the leader of the gothic nation. He represents our ignorance, our fascination with all things magical, and is the face of a truly poignant redemption story. He even symbolically rises from ashes near the end of this film. I think he represents more than the kids who shop at Hot Topic think. This film also cast its spell over me as a kid and I’m glad I had the chance to see it before the recent surge of popularity. Eye opening and intricate, with treasures abound, The Nightmare Before Christmas sweeps us off our feet, much like the season it is a testament to. An undeniable family classic.
The Nightmare Before Christmas is now available on Blu-ray and DVD.