(Sam Fell, Chris Butler, 2012)
Another in the 2012 mini-wave of animated films for children utilising horror iconography and even, to some extent, plotting, ParaNorman is an outstanding piece of work, affectionate in its approach to the material to which it pays tribute, clever, exciting and engaging throughout.
It tells the story of Norman, a young boy who is a necromancer - he speaks to and sees the dead. Everywhere, all the time. For this he is bullied in school, fighting with his parents and sister at home, and a little bit lonely too. When his hermit of an uncle reveals that he has the same power, and that Norman must take over his duties, fighting off a prophesised Witches curse on the same day every year, Norman grudgingly agrees. Only he is too late, and his town is suddenly invaded by a mob of zombies as Norman and a ragtag group of his friends search desperately for a way to save their home.
Suffering from one of the usual problems affecting children's films - a need to hit too many bases with regularity, so that an action scene follows a scare, then is interrupted by a gag, all topped off by a moment of obvious character growth - ParaNorman has its own distinctive look and feel, which makes it play like a really original and refreshing piece of work. It lacks the fuzzy perfection of a Pixar product, and its top-motion style is utterly different from the approach of either Aardman or Tim Burton's school.
Instead, its design is quirky, even a little gritty, with a caricatured quality to the characters that allows the horror to work without ever becoming too frightening for the young target audience. There are a few neat references to various horror films, and some tremendous character work. It is reminiscent of the adventure films of the 1980s which were aimed squarely at teens and children; meaning that it feels almost as if it could have been written for a live action treatment, and benefits from that emphasis on a solid emotional base for Norman in his everyday life. The fantastic material then feels like a colourful extension of that world. The finale - Norman's final confrontation with the Witch - is beautiful, atmospheric and even a little moving.