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ParaNorman (2012)

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.

Grade: A

Wall-E (2008)

by Steve Habrat

Of all the Pixar movies that I have seen, my favorite one is without question director Andrew Stanton’s Wall-E, the film that I believe has the most heart and soul out of all the Pixar films. I absolutely love that this is a silent film for half the runtime, allowing us to get sucked in to actions rather than the words. It is very hard to not fall for the peculiar little robot that loves Hello, Dolly, has a cockroach for a pet, and is puzzled over a bra. You won’t be able to get enough of the moments where Wall-E discovers that he is in love with fellow robot EVE, mystified by her sudden presence in his lonely little world. I felt for him in his desperation for a friend, someone he could share all of his interests and chat with in his hysterical little robot blips and squeals. When Wall-E isn’t overtaking you emotionally, you will be shocked to see how intelligent this film truly is. With Wall-E, Stanton points out that big corporations control almost every aspect of our lives and have made us the overweight slobs that we are. They control fads, what we eat, drink, what we should fear, what we should see, etcetera. Tell me that is not thought provoking for a children’s film! And yet Wall-E still fills me with childlike wonder as it shows us how beautiful love can truly be.

Wall-E begins in the distant future, with earth having been abandoned by her polluting children and left to be cleaned up by a garbage-collecting robot named Wall-E. Wall-E has been by himself for quite a long time without anyone to connect with except for his pet cockroach. He spends his days working at a task that seems like it will never be finished and he spends his evenings watching Hello, Dolly and staring up at the stars, hoping for a savior to come and take him away from the mundane. One day, Wall-E sees an enormous spaceship land and send out a sleek robot named EVE (Extraterrestrial Vegetation Evaluator), who is on the hunt for plant life. Wall-E immediately falls for EVE but she is so consumed with her mission on earth that she barely even notices the sweet Wall-E following her around. The two eventually connect but when Wall-E shows her a small plant he has found, EVE scoops up the plant and heads back out to space to the Axiom, an enormous spaceship that contains what is left of the human race. Wall-E chases after her but once he boards the Axiom, the lovable duo discovers a plot that would prevent the humans aboard the Axiom from ever returning to earth.

While Wall-E remains consistent its entire runtime, the first half of the film is such a breath of fresh air, it remains one of the crowning moments for the Pixar team. When you aren’t wrapped up in little Wall-E’s daily routine of compacting and rummaging through trash, you will be pulling for the little guy to find that spark with EVE. I absolutely love watching Wall-E discover a Rubik’s cube, car keys, and a fire extinguisher. He has grown bored with the monotony of his day to day, desperate to find something that will entertain him enough to forget about the tedious task of shuffling garbage. We also get to meet his pet, a cuddly little cockroach (Did you EVER think a cockroach could be cuddly?) that crawls around Wall-E’s insides, making him giggle and fidget. Watching the two get out of bed was a chuckler, Wall-E so groggy that he bumps into things as he tries to get himself ready for the day. When EVE shows up, Wall-E really perks up as he zooms after EVE, hiding out of bashfulness as he attempts to work up the courage to approach her. The two share a moment in Wall-E’s little house that is movie magic at its absolute finest.

The second half of the film is just as entertaining but it marches to a different beat. We get to meet tons of robots that prowl the Axiom while the humans all lounge around on hovering recliners. The humans are all obese slaves to a corporation called Buy N’ Large that announces over loud speakers what the current trend is in fashion (Keep an ear out for a voice cameo from Sigourney Weaver and an eye out for an appearance by Fred Willard). Buy N’ Large provides the humans with endless amounts of soda as they video chat into screens that obstruct their vision. Wall-E accidentally knocks out one human’s screen, a man named John (Voiced by John Ratzenberger), who discovers a world around him that he has been completely oblivious to. Wall-E and EVE also manage to short out another screen that belongs to a woman named Mary (Voiced by Kathy Najimy). John and Mary meet up and they quickly fall for each other, laughing over the quirky, love drunk robots that brought them together. Aboard the Axiom, Wall-E gets a bit preachy, a call to shake ourselves out of current fads and trends that are controlled by others and explore the world around us. We also get to meet the ships captain (Voiced by Jeff Garlin), who is clueless to what Earth is until he begins to research it. Wall-E comes equipped with a green message, wagging its finger at us for polluting the earth in addition to our brains and bodies.

Wall-E takes its good old time developing the love story between Wall-E and EVE, forcing us to emotionally invest in these little joys and I’ll be damned if the payoff isn’t overwhelmingly satisfying. Not one aspect of the film seems rushed, despite the fact that the film only runs an hour and a half. The standout sequence of Wall-E has got to be when Wall-E and EVE dance around in space, their love deepening with each spin through the air. The film does get a bit intense in the final moments as our lovable little hero gets badly wounded and barely clings to life. It falls on EVE and the captain to save the little guy AND the humans aboard the Axiom. Wall-E is such a pleasant film because it allows us to really get to know this little guy inside and out. His binocular eyes practically overflow with intrigue, curiosity, and wonder at the world around him. It is astonishing that Wall-E’s eyes are more alive than the eyes of the “human” characters found in most other animated offerings. In the multiple times I have seen Wall-E since it was released on Blu-ray, I haven’t been able to find a single thing wrong with the film, a rarity considering most newer films are far from perfect. Wall-E turns out to be a great cinematic love story and a masterpiece of animated filmmaking. Don’t be afraid to fall for this one!

Grade: A+

Wall-E is available on Blu-ray and DVD.