ParaNorman dares to play to all audiences. Unraveling with a purposefully imperfect stop-motion technique the zombie adventure utilizes striking filmmaking styles sharp wit and scares that will give young ones the willies while tickling the nostalgia bone of any adult who used to stay up past his or her bedtime watching horror movies. The film isn't overtly for anyone; it's simply on a mission to tell a great story. ParaNorman succeeds: embracing a world where bullying is hitting an epidemic level and the social "outcasts" are lashing out the animated movie balances emotional messages with a wild visual ride. Quite out of the ordinary — the living dead being just the beginning.
Norman (The Road's Kodi Smit-McPhee) is a middle schooler living on the fringes. He sits alone at lunch with his only real friend the chubby nerd Neil; he's routinely beat up by schoolyard bully Alvin (Christopher Mintz-Plasse); and the kicker: he sees ghosts — and no one believes him. Norman passes the time by watching old horror movies with the spirit of his Grandma (Elaine Stritch) much to the chagrin of his mother (Leslie Mann) and father (Jeff Garlin). Norman's dad is fed up with Norman's "disturbed" behavior but before he can ship his son off to psychiatric help all hell breaks loose in their hometown of Blithe Hollow. Failing to put together the cryptic words of town crazy Mr. Prenderghast and keep zombies at rest Norman goes on the run from the living dead who take to the streets of Blithe Hollow. Why? The mystery is revealed as Norman embarks on a Goonies-style race around Blithe Hollow.
ParaNorman only loses footing when it's in explanation mode setting up the pieces of the puzzle that will play out in the movie's second half (not unlike most movies of the genre it's riffing on). But the introductions to the colorful cast and horror-inspired adventure brought to life with stunning animation and a muted color palette unlike most kid-friendly cartoons are an absolute treat. Norman is a three-dimensional character both in puppetry and human terms; Smit-McPhee's timid vocals realize the fear of the scary moments and work as perfect deadpan to ParaNorman's comedic asides. The movie advances its risk-taking to a whole other level in the finale offering an explosive crescendo that wows the senses and is sure to bring tears to the eyes. It's a marvel on a technical level — intricate landscapes shot with shallow focus all set to Jon Brion's rousing score — but in the end the film works because it's a great bold story. For a movie grounded in fear ParaNorman stands out as a movie for audiences young and old that's truly fearless.
Cooked up in the head of Oscar-winning screenwriter Charlie Kaufman (Being John Malkovich) comes the movie in which he makes his directorial debut. Without Michel Gondry or Spike Jonze sifting through the maze this time Kaufman himself weaves this crazy quilt with consummate skill. In other words Synecdoche New York is just as successfully quirky humane and head scratching as all the others in the Kaufman ouerve. To sum up the plot succinctly is impossible but it centers on a stage director and hypochondriac Caden Cotard (Philip Seymour Hoffman) who trades in his suburban life with wife Adele (Catherine Keener) daughter Olive (Sadie Goldstein) and regional theatrical work in Schenectady for a chance at Broadway. He puts together a cast (resembling those in his own dream world) and brings them to a Manhattan warehouse being designed as a replica of the city outside. As the world he is creating inside these walls expands so does the focus of his own life and relationships. As the years literally fly by he gets deeper into his theatrical self which soon starts to merge with his own increasingly pathetic reality. Whatever you make of the tale Kaufman is telling here the casting could not be better or more suited to the quirky material. Philip Seymour Hoffman offers up a tour-de-force and is simply superb playing all the tics and foibles of the deeply disturbed Caden. His early scenes in his “normal” home are wonderfully alive with all his phobias and hypochondria in view. Later we literally watch this man disintegrate as his master creation overwhelms him. Hoffman seems to fully understand the mental trauma of a man running as far from his own realities as he possibly can. Catherine Keener as always is right on target as his wife Adele. She has a knack for taking what seems like tiny moments and making them define exactly who this woman is. Jennifer Jason Leigh as a mentor to Caden’s daughter is always fascinating to watch and plays Maria with an ounce of irony. Tom Noonan playing the actor portraying Caden in the play is the perfect doppelganger and delightfully adds to Caden’s confused state. The all-pro trio of Michelle Williams as Caden’s new wife Claire; Samantha Morton as the irresistible assistant Hazel; and Hope Davis as Caden’s self-absorbed therapist add greatly to the merry mix. It’s nice to watch Charlie Kaufman seize control of his own work. In this instance he’s really the only one who can deliver us his Fellini-esque vision. Centering it all on the theatrical director’s weird universe Synecdoche does seem like it might be Kaufman’s own take on Fellini’s 8 ½ or even Woody Allen’s paean to that film Stardust Memories. Let’s just say we know most of it must exist somewhere inside Kaufman. Early domestic scenes could have been played flat but the novice director moves the camera around skillfully enough to make us immediately engaged in Caden’s world. Second half of the film set in the phantasmagoric warehouse is a stunning tapestry of scenes from Kaufman’s singularly fertile imagination. It’s nice to note he’s well equipped with the basic tools a director needs for this type of challenging material. Overall his film is a surprising confounding visual feast -- a dream/nightmare come to life and then spinning out of control.