Monday, 24 September 2012

'ParaNorman' review (spoilers!)

‘ParaNorman’, the latest feature film from animation studio Laika, is an ambitious movie attempting to raise the bar for the production of stop motion films on a technical level. Since Laika’s previous movie, ‘Coraline’ (2009), technology has improved drastically, and ‘ParaNorman’ is representative of the drive of its creators to better themselves in every aspect- a determination that can only be commended.

The story begins when protagonist Norman, a horror movie aficionado and social outcast due to his supposed ability to see ghosts, attends school on the anniversary of the town’s legendary Witch making a terrible curse. Norman begins seeing visions inadvertently, which at first make no sense to him- until his mysterious disowned uncle appears, claiming similar paranormal abilities himself, and declares that it is Norman’s duty to preserve normality and prevent the curse from coming to fruition once he is gone. Suffice it to say, the crazy man doesn’t last long, leaving it up to Norman to follow his cryptic instructions and postpone the curse for another year, by reading from a book at the location the Witch is buried before sunset that very night. The instructions prove difficult to follow, Norman gets the wrong location, and zombies rise from the grave. The majority of the film chronicles Norman’s attempts to correct the situation by finding the real Witch’s grave.

The plot moves along steadily to begin with, increasing tension well and humourously playing off many established horror genre stereotypes. There are a few odd issues with the story mid-way through however. The curse reanimates but seven zombies- the original cursed courtroom members who sentenced the young ‘witch’ to death. Yet, relatively early on, we see that the zombies are most useless when pitted against the violent and bloodthirsty townsfolk, possessing no defenses whatsoever. It is established that the Witch’s curse cannot create more zombies, nor are the zombies ever seen to make any attempt to bite anyone or even be capable of fighting back (despite a bizarrely contradicting statement from one of the principle cast that the zombies are eating everyone). Of course, this is a children’s animation, and I wouldn’t expect or want to see people being injured- but on a logical level, I was left wondering why exactly Norman needs to go on a quest to end the curse in the first place, when its effect is nothing more than creating seven piñatas for the locals to hit with sticks? Whilst the pathetic zombies (which even retreat after taking a good beating) are a genuinely funny inclusion, it removes any semblance of threat from the plotline, and thus muddies the motivation for Norman and his companions. Moreover, the ‘twist’ revelation later on that the zombies do not want to harm anyone comes at no surprise as a result.

Despite this, the story is well meaning and enjoyable throughout, providing strong lead characters and moral messages to the audience about accepting who you are and not acting irrationally through fear. The pacing is very good, with plenty of time devoted to character development before the curse plotline comes into force, and there is a nice buildup of action towards the end.

I definitely felt as though the film tried too hard to be funny at times, with some jokes and references feeling shoehorned in at the last minute. Nevertheless, the script is decent and there are plenty of moments where the gags land perfectly. There is a good variety of humour targeting both young and older viewers, ensuring that no matter what your age, you will find the film consistently amusing.

It is the technology behind ParaNorman however that is the real draw of the film. The 3D printed replacement facial parts enable a truly unprecedented degree of expression for the puppets. According to Laika’s calculations, Norman is able to express himself in a staggering 1.5 million ways- and it shows.

A range of 3D printed replacement faces for Norman

The animation of the film is simply by far the most realistic, believable stop motion animation I have ever seen. Every movement is natural and fluid, and the subtle details (such as eye twitches, and slight shifts in the characters’ focus) really take things to a whole new level. Oftentimes, I felt myself forgetting that what I was watching was actually stop motion- but is this a good thing? The animation is so seamless that after a while, you cease to notice it any more, and other shots, which could only have been created with clever CGI, can barely be distinguished from the hand made elements.

If ever there was a case of stop motion perhaps becoming ‘too’ perfect, this is it. Don’t get me wrong; the ‘hand of the animator’ is still visible. As the characters talk, there is a constant, delightful wobble of the replacement mouth pieces being put not-quite-perfectly back into place. But this is unfortunately near the extent to which it can be seen. The consistency of the puppets is astonishing, and I have a great deal of praise for ParaNorman on a technical level, which truly breaks new ground in this regard. Nevertheless, I left the cinema feeling a little unsatisfied, that in my opinion a great deal of the aesthetic appeal of stop motion films had been absent. The point is, you expect stop motion to be a little rough around the edges. There is an intrinsic appeal in knowing that what you are watching is ‘real, tangible, touched by hand’.

It is the latter, the handmade aesthetic, that in my opinion is largely missing from the film. It is all too apparent that the puppets’ faces were not handcrafted. The characters looked so crisp and clear-cut, and lacking of superficial handcrafted flaws, that one could easily be forgiven for thinking they were CGI. At a first glance, even the choppy lip-sync characteristic of stop motion animation appears to be CGI rendered with fewer than usual frames for the sake of stylisation.

ParaNorman has utterly fantastic sets, which are at times absolutely huge. Scenes such as the Hall of Records really showcase the grandiose scale and ambition of the production. Whereas the replacement pieces for the puppets were 3D printed for consistency, leading largely to a loss of the oft-touted hand made aesthetic, this is not an issue with the sets, where the designers and model makers have worked wonders. Norman’s hometown of Blithe Hollow is brimming with detail and character, bringing his world to life.

Even so, given the prowess of computer rendering nowadays, especially in terms of lighting, people are more capable than ever of creating 3D environments and characters that look like real miniature models and worlds. In order to differentiate itself from CGI, stop motion animation needs to wholly embrace every nuance of imperfection that makes it stand out in the inevitable sea of animated movies released each year. While most stop motion films unashamedly flaunt their handcrafted heritage, ParaNorman oddly seems rather coy, at times ostensibly trying to hide its tangibility from view. An interesting point made to me by a friend after the film had ended, was whether or not those in the audience who do not study animation would recognise the film as stop motion with real physical puppets, or believe it simply to be another computer animated family film. The abundance of CG special effects, from glowing ghosts to swirling monstrous cloud formations, certainly didn’t help in this regard.

This is not to say that ParaNorman looks bad. The film is stunning. The issue is, ironically, that it almost looks too good. In an age where cinematic hand drawn traditional animation seems to have been almost completely phased out, stop motion is still going strong. Many would argue that stop motion has endured because it features a unique charm and aesthetic quality that cannot be found elsewhere. As is the case with ParaNorman, when this charm, arguably a selling point and the unique feature of the medium, becomes largely undetectable by the viewer to the point where any distinction between stop motion and CGI diminishes, one must ask the question of why the movie was not simply made with CGI in the first place? Indeed, the characters’ faces were created directly from 3D computer models, even being ‘painted’ by machine according to the model’s UV texture map.

ParaNorman is a stop motion animated movie almost desperately obsessed with matching the visual fidelity of the latest Pixar masterpiece, a peculiar (and sometimes a little uncomfortable) juxtaposition given that the two mediums are popular for virtually opposite reasons. It is simply trying too hard to abandon its roots and become something that, at a core level, it is not- which in my opinion becomes slightly detrimental. The CGI-saturated market is an intimidating prospect to any stop motion production- but as Norman’s grandmother says in the film, ‘It’s okay to be scared, as long as you don’t let it change who you are’.


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