Saturday, December 29, 2012

A Very Short Review Of Paranorman

The second exceptional animated film to break from the Disney mold in as many years? We're going to get spoiled.

Paranorman opens with scenes from faux 1950's monster movies to explicitly state where they acquired their inspiration, and indeed, the movie does derive a good deal of texture from these old concepts. It's only a gloss, though, and the underlying script, character construction, and wholly progressive undertones are far beyond anything Robot Monster, or Them could have ever hoped for.

Before I get into any detail, you should go see this movie immediately. Judging from box office receipts, there are many people who didn't, and this is a shame. I can't say that this is the best animated film of 2012--we had some exceptional films this year and choosing an absolute best is mostly academic--but it is in the top five.

If you haven't yet seen it, I also cannot blame you. The trailers are some of the worst that I have seen this side of Dreamworks Animation. They completely, totally, 100% fail to effectively advertise what the movie was going to be about and what mood the movie was going to capture. The trailers make the movie appear to be goofy and corny, and it is anything but. It is quiet and contemplative at times, and far from the constant stream of silly one-liners that comprised the advertisements.

The animation is mind-blowing. I thought that Coraline made Corpse Bride and The Nightmare Before Christmas look dated. Well, this movie makes Coraline look old and unrefined. Not only is there a stunning amount of detail and life to the character designs, not only is the film possessing of texture that other movies would kill for, but the animation itself raises the bar for stop-motion work. It's like nothing I have ever seen. It bobs and weaves, crackles and jumps, all with a jaw-dropping smoothness and vivacity. This makes Frankenweenie, released about a month later, look uninspired in comparison.

Similarly upgraded from Coraline is the sound production. Coraline's audio was disappointing, lacking depth, complexity and impact. The scene that I remember most distinctly was when Coraline spins around a door, with her yelling not fading in and out as she went behind and in front of the door. None of that in Paranorman! The audio is loaded with detail and punch. Truly, they seem to jump to scenarios that are tailor-made for wild audio after only fifteen minutes.

The problems are those that equally affected Coraline. I don't know what it is about the writers at Laika, but they don't seem to like traditional dramatic structure. Coraline had odd rises and falls in its action, culminating in a double climax that made almost no sense. Paranorman has character and concept exposition, then a stratospheric leap to maximum action, which drops off for a period of time before maxing out again, then finally the falling action and denouement.

I appreciate that not everything needs to follow the traditional dramatic pyramid, but it became a thing because it works. It is very hard to write something that doesn't follow the standard structure and still "works," and Paranorman doesn't quite work. There's very little drama in the lead-up to the action, and then there is so much drama piled on top of itself that it is hard to appreciate it. It becomes all the more important for a movie, if it is rejecting traditional dramatic structure, to ensure that its cause-and-effect chain is strong, with each cause and each effect emphasized in the dialog and direction. Paranorman fails at this on more than one occasion.

This is a structural and somewhat academic analysis and criticism of the story. My more personal view is that the story is one that has been done many times before, with characters that have been done before, but the entire thing is constructed with so much color and inventiveness that these faults are immediately lost. Yes, this is another story about an outsider, with geeks and bullies at odds, with parents that don't understand, blah, blah, blah. I didn't care though!

The voice overs are somewhat muted in comparison to the highly emotive work done by professional voice actors, but this goes well with the tone of the film. They also go well in creating the unique characters that, much like Coraline, feel as though they come from a different universe than the characters in Disney or Dreamworks films.

I mentioned how the trailers fail to capture the personality of the film, and this is a tragedy. Paranorman is an exceptional film with an atmosphere that is just this side of comedy as opposed to a traditional horror flick. It is a movie that relies heavily on atmosphere and mise-en-scène to communicate emotions and takes all of these aspects beyond Coraline's already notable achievements.

More over, the film never once condescends to the children watching the film. It is entirely sincere. It is also one of a recent batch of animated films that recognizes that children are not innocent little things that need to only be exposed to pure, traditional subject matter, or ironic takes on pure, traditional subject matter. Monster House, Coraline, Rango, Fantastic Mr. Fox, The Secret of Kells, The Adventures of Tin Tin, and even some work from the major studios like Up, Puss in Boots, and Kung Fu Panda., all of them are part of a large renaissance of animation that I assumed would happen in the smaller, independent studios, but appears to have begun in the large studios.

These films understand that for movies to have an impact, they must have real drama. They must have danger, and violence, and dirty words, and all of the other things that comprise real drama in the real world. While Paranorman may not take place in the real world, it feels more real, more alive, than anything that Disney has produced in twenty years. If they had left the script in the oven for a little while longer, they would have had a masterpiece. As it stands, Paranorman is an exceptional film, utterly deserving of your attention, with many parts so good as to make the parts where it fails all the more frustrating.

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