Film review – ParaNorman (2012)

6 January 2013

Norman Babcock (voiced by Kodi Smit-McPhee)

Norman Babcock (voiced by Kodi Smith-McPhee) is an outsider who can see dead people and prefers the company of his grandmother’s ghost to any of the living inhabitants of the small town he lives in. In an early scene he is shown gloomily stuck between his parents’ stomachs to emphasise the banality of his day-to-day life, in contrast to the world of horror movies he retreats into when given the chance. Many early gags in the stop-motion animation ParaNorman are associated with Norman’s collection of horror paraphernalia, which include a phone with the Halloween (John Carpenter, 1978) theme for its ringtone. When a distant relative gives a reluctant Norman the task of placating a witch who has threatened the town yearly since the 18th century, things go wrong and Norman must face a zombie threat.

It would be easy to assume that a stop-motion family horror/comedy about a misunderstood young boy who is bullied, considered a freak, can see ghosts and loves classic zombie films, was a Tim Burton film. Indeed if you replace the focus on zombies and witchcraft in ParaNorman to reanimation and monsters then on paper you would have a film that seemed very similar to Burton’s stop-motion animation Frankenweeniealso made in 2012. There is even what could possibly be a fleeting tribute to Burton in ParaNorman in the form of a briefly seen missing pet poster for a dog named Vincent. Both films are about misunderstood young boys and the ‘monsters’ they befriend and both films are loving tributes to older horror films, both in style and narrative tips of the hat. Yet despite the narrative and thematic similarities, ParaNorman is a distinct film able to co-exist alongside the equally marvellous Frankenweenie without suffering in comparison.

On the surface ParaNorman is impressive simply because it manages the juggling act of being scary, being funny and remaining accessible for a wide range of ages. Directors Sam Fell and Chris Butler very adeptly raise the stakes of key scenes where the characters are being threatened to then dilute the moment with a fun gag without completely compromising the tension.  Allowing the audience to feel the chills, but with the knowledge that nothing truly horrific will happen is a skilful and kind strategy necessary for a film pitched at younger audiences that will still appeal to older audiences. There are even some surprisingly audacious gross-out moments, such as when Norman is trapped under a dead body and the corpse’s tongue flops out onto his face, to generate delighted squeals of disgust. Where Fell and Butler don’t hold back is the emotional intensity that the film unexpectedly crescendos to towards the end. The concluding scenes where Norman realises the true extent of why his town is cursed are remarkably powerful in terms of the striking animation, emotive voice acting and thematic resolution.

The real strength of ParaNorman is how it presents the themes of bullying and misunderstanding. The film goes into considerable depth to explore the links between taunting somebody for being weird to full blown persecution with devastating results. It’s a sophisticated presentation of how victimising behaviour on a small scale is an expression of victimisation on a much larger scale, and how both are symptoms of a fear-based culture. The film also acknowledges how violence from the past continues to manifests in the present when not reconciled adequately. Not that ParaNorman is preaching that there is nothing to be afraid of, in fact it acknowledges that being afraid is natural and frequently useful in order to survive. Instead the film is saying that fear is okay if it doesn’t change who you are or transform into hatred. Hence Norman is the hero while the hysterical townsfolk who attack the zombies with disturbing relish become yet another threat for Norman to navigate. It is no accident that the music used to accompany the zombies is also used to accompany the attacking human lynch mob.

Most impressive is how ParaNorman handles ideas of redemption and understanding. There are very few innocent or blameless characters in the film with most of the human and supernatural characters having blood – literally or metaphorically – on their hands. It’s not simply a case of the wronged versus the wrongdoers as throughout the film victims become aggressors and aggressors become victims. It’s about how characters respond to their torments, and with Norman as the film’s quick-learning moral compass, forgiveness and acknowledging the mistakes of the past without self-justification are the key to ending the cycle of fear and violence. Even the narrative of the film follows this advice, teaming Norman up with an unlikely ensemble of helpers based on how they are initially introduced in the film.

Funny, frightening, exciting and extremely thoughtful about the nature of the conflict at the core of the film, ParaNorman is a standout feature animation and family film from recent years. Not only does it recall some of Tim Burton’s better films, but it also evokes many of the films of the 1980s directed by Joe Dante and/or produced by Steven Spielberg, with lots of pleasing nods to American horror maestros such as George A Romero and John Carpenter. It’s a reminder of how strong films for younger viewers can be, and should always aspire to be.

Thomas Caldwell, 2013

Film review – Let Me In (2010)

2 October 2010
Abby  (Chloë Grace Moretz)

Abby (Chloë Grace Moretz)

As the main justification for doing an English language remake of a non-English language film is often so that a wider audience will be able to enjoy the story, there is often the fear that the remake will be dumbed down in order to best appeal to the types of audiences who won’t see subtitled films. That is why it is so exciting to discover that this English-language remake of the 2008 Swedish vampire film Let the Right One In (itself a novel adaptation) is so wonderful. Like the original film it maintains an incredible mood of dread and foreboding while also being a strangely touching story about young love.

The setting is now a small town in New Mexico in 1983 but the film is still about a shy, bullied and lonely 12-year-old boy (now named Owen and played by Kodi Smit-McPhee) and his friendship with a vampire who is permanently stuck as a 12-year-old girl (now named Abby and played by Chloë Grace Moretz). Smit-McPhee (The Road) gives Owen the right degree of vulnerability yet slightly strange sensitivity, while Moretz (Kick-Ass) brings a remarkable blend of otherworldly mystery and melancholy to Abby. She is absolutely convincing as an old soul who is physically and mentally trapped forever to live life as a 12-year-old girl. The pair are two of the finest young actors in recent memory and have a genuine chemistry, which brings an enormous amount of pathos to their relationship.

Let Me In: Abby (Chloë Grace Moretz) and Owen (Kodi Smit-Mcphee)

Abby (Chloë Grace Moretz) and Owen (Kodi Smit-Mcphee)

Let Me In does lack the icy edginess of the original film, however, Australian cinematographer Greig Fraser (The Boys Are Back, Bright Star) has done a remarkable job capturing the various light sources to give scenes between Owen and Abby a beautiful warm glow. This approach works extremely well and the combination of Fraser’s cinematography and the music by composer Michael Giacchino (Up, Star Trek) creates an atmosphere of both horror and beauty. The only visual component that lets this remake down are the CGIs used to animate Abby when she attacks. There is certainly a creepy uncanny aesthetic to her movements up to a point but they end up simply possessing the unconvincing cartoonish look that is so prevalent in so many CGI effects.

The concerns behind Let Me In were that it would be yet another inferior remake or simply redundant. It is neither. It is arguably one of the best remakes ever made and yet it is different and inventive enough so that both versions complement each other. Director and writer Matt Reeves has done a remarkable job and like he did so effectively throughout Cloverfield, he situates the audience within the action at key moments so that we experience those moments from the characters’ perspective. This skilled manipulation of positions of spectatorship is just another element that makes Let Me In a remarkable film. Rarely do remakes feel this refreshingly original.

© Thomas Caldwell, 2010

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Film review – The Road (2009)

27 January 2010

The Man (Viggo Mortensen) and The Boy (Kodi Smit-McPhee)

After the success of Joel and Ethan Coen’s adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s No Country For Old Men, the next novel by McCarthy that was the obvious one to adapt for the screen was his Pulitzer Price-winning novel The Road. When it was announced that Australian director John Hillcoat was going to direct there was a sense of relief. Hillcoat’s previous film, his 2005 Australian Western masterpiece The Proposition, articulated the sort of violent existentialism and bleak landscapes that are to be found in McCarthy’s story about an unnamed man and his son trying to survive in a post-apocalyptic world. Also, Hillcoat’s début feature film, the 1988 futuristic prison drama Ghosts… of the Civil Dead, contains a similar fragmented narrative to The Road where a sense of relentless monotony is punctuated with extreme, but fleeting, incidents.

The trust placed in Hillcoat to adapt The Road has paid off and the result is one of cinema’s most faithful adaptations. Hillcoat has embellished some aspects of the novel and condensed others for the purpose of making the text more cinematic but it would be very difficult to question any of his decisions as by doing so he has successfully ensured that The Road functions as a film in its own right.

As the unnamed father in the film, Viggo Mortensen delivers an astonishing performance as a man who is essentially trying to survive while still doing the right thing. The parental bond that Mortensen establishes on screen with the 13-year-old actor Kodi Smit-McPhee playing his son is extremely powerful and this bond gives the film the small bursts of humanity that radiate out through the bleakness. Smit-McPhee is astonishing and demonstrates a disciplined approach to portraying complex emotions on-screen that is far beyond his years. Together the pair ‘carry the fire’ through a wilderness populated by murderers, rapists and cannibals.

Visually The Road is a relentless palate of greys and browns making the eye initially struggle to adjust to its lack of colour and light. This of course is part of what makes the film such a beautiful expression of McCarthy’s prose and Hillcoat wisely uses a low-key combination of location footage and CGIs to create a sad industrial wasteland that is more reminiscent of Tarkovsky’s Stalker than Mad Max.

The one main sticking point many may have with Hillcoat’s The Road is the ending, which, although it stays faithful to the novel, on the surface may appear compromised. It is nevertheless a fitting conclusion that actually remains completely true to the core ideas expressed throughout the rest of the film and upon extended reflection it becomes clear that it is the only ending that is possible. Anything else would have upset the delicate balance of ideas and meaning that make The Road resonate so profoundly.

© Thomas Caldwell, 2010

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