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Can the makers of the masterpiece Coraline repeat their genius three years on without Henry Selick?

In 2009 Laika completely redefined stop motion animation with a film that explored the ultimate nightmare of childhood. Coraline was an unprecedented success, an achievement that stands as one of the most extraordinary in animation history and remains my second favourite film. So how in the name of Jack Skellington do you follow something like that? And how do you do it without your talismanic director? The answer is you make ParaNorman, a film that hits a lot of the same beats as Coraline and manages, miraculously, to live up to it, if not exactly match it.

ParaNorman is an original story about a boy, Norman Babcock, who can see and talk to dead people. But instead of feeling terrorised by this gift, like Haley Joel Osment, Norman embraces it and chats cheerfully to the numerous ghosts he meets on his daily walk to school. In fact these horrifying visions seem to be a source of some inspiration for him as he plasters his bedroom wall with monster posters, uses his toothpaste to pretend he’s foaming at the mouth like a zombie and watches trashy horror movies with the ghost of his grandma. Norman has a pleasingly healthy relationship with horror but sadly not with most of the living people he knows, his schoolmates shun and pick on him for openly claiming to converse with the dead and even his own father is deplorably intolerant. Like Coraline Jones it’s easy to root for this young hero and a hero is what he will need to become when his barmy uncle, who seems to possess the same gift, passes to him the responsibility of keeping at bay a curse made by a witch executed by 18th century puritans which apparently threatens his home town every year. Despite his best efforts he finds himself beset by the reconstituted dead. Yup, it’s a zombie movie for kids.

But it’s much more than that. ParaNorman features at its heart a thematic and emotional maturity that few kids’ flicks ever even attempt, there’s a character revelation in the closing moments that would never happen in a Disney film and there are little subversively suggestive moments throughout. Remember that scene in Coraline in which the two old burlesque dancers put on a hilariously grotesque show practically in the nude? Expect jokes with that kind of edge that just nudge the boundaries of appropriate content for children’s entertainment in ParaNorman too. It’s quite scary also, featuring a number of scenes that might prove too much for the youngest nippers but that shouldn’t put you off from taking them as watching the right kind of scary movie in one’s youth is a positive experience that aids emotional development no end. Plus the frights are well balanced by laughs and you can tell the team at Laika had fun not only with the gruesome zombies but also with the main cast of eccentric characters. Norman is joined by a mismatched quartet of reluctant assistants that include Neil, an equally put-upon but nonetheless genial tubby kid, his muscle-bound but dim older brother Mitch, Alvin the school bully who’s so thick he can’t even spell his own name and Norman’s pink tracksuit-wearing cheerleader sister Courtney. They’re all pretty much stereotypes but they’re good stereotypes, consistently entertaining and given the right energy and character by a charismatic cast of voice artists. But it’s not just the well-balanced main group that amuses, there are jokes flying all over the place, many cleverly hidden in the old stop motion tradition and plenty of others that will comfortably have you laughing out loud. One gag involving a vending machine made me laugh harder than I’ve done at a film for as long as I can remember. It’s a very funny film indeed and a great deal of that is down to the fantastically eccentric production design.

Everything in Norman’s world is a little bit lopsided or misshapen including a lot of the people and the town exudes an air of quirky gloom that fits the tone of the story and the stop motion medium flawlessly. It’s fair to say that the visual impact of the film wouldn’t be half what it is in pure CGI and the slight creakiness afforded by the low frame rate of this kind of animation again proves ideal for horror. The jerky movements of the zombies are given an unearthly edge by the method in which they’re animated. The character models and sets also stand up to a huge amount of scrutiny under some very daring close-up shots. The film does things with stop motion that have never been done before and like Coraline before it raises the bar for the medium in the extraordinary depth and detail it goes into with things like airborne objects and the all-important lighting and also the way it seamlessly mixes with intelligently-deployed CG. Quite simply we’re looking at animation history and what a sight it is.

For a good three quarters of its running time ParaNorman chugs along zipping from scene to scene and gag to gag with only a couple of minor lulls, proving excellent value but in the final act it steps things up a gear and enters a finale of rich maturity and emotional weight seldom seen in this type of film. Without wanting to spoil anything the film ends with a sublime sequence that is scary, visually astounding and packed with pathos, nothing less than one of the greatest, most memorable scenes in animation history, a moment that is hauntingly scored and arrestingly beautiful. I admit that since the first trailers for the film appeared I didn’t expect it to reach a Coraline level of brilliance, it just seemed to be playing for laughs too much for that. But this ending cements the film’s achievement of exceeding my expectations and gaining a level of artistry and maturity that elevates the experience as a whole to a higher level of substance and worth. I don’t think it quite reaches the heights of Coraline which is both scarier and more personal, but boy is it close.

Verdict

Laika have produced another masterful stop motion horror that makes unprecedented use of the medium’s unique charms and conjures a film of real depth that is both scary and funny. Without any doubt the best animated film of the year and a fantastic achievement in children’s storytelling. I urge you to go and see it; I can’t wait to see it again and I can’t wait to see what Laika, who right now look an awful lot like the best animation studio working in the world, do next.

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