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Film Review: ParaNorman

January 8, 2013 3 comments

ParaNorman (2012; Directed by Sam Fell and Chris Butler)

An inventive animated adventure dotted with reverential nods to classics of film horror, ParaNorman is entertaining enough on a basic level while apparently comfortably occupying the conventional thematic territory of much recent Hollywood animation. It’s got the impeccable craft, clever sight gags and verbal wit that one ought to expect from an Aardman-trained stop-motion vet (this is Sam Fell, who co-directs with Chris Butler). But the elevation of ParaNorman to a position loftier than that held by your average run-of-the-mill big-screen cartoon romp (although it offers romping aplenty, too) is due to the film’s intelligent and even nuanced engagement with the social and historical terms of the outcast figure in America and beyond.

The central outcast figure in question is the titular Norman (voiced by Kodi Smit-McPhee), although he grants access to a host of other such pariahs via his embodiment of the archetype. Norman, like a spikey-hair Haley Joel Osment, can see and speak to the dead. No one else around him can do so, and so his ability (or more so his guileless approach of not hiding it) has made Norman into an outcast in his community. He is teased and bullied at school, regarded with curious distrust in the town at large, and is even greeted with frustrated denial by his family. His gift (or his curse) has made him different, and that difference has led to social exclusion. But when a crisis faces his community that is ideally suited to his talents, those who shunned him learn to overcome their prejudices and value and accept his distinctness.

This position aligns Norman with many other ostracized lead characters in recent feature animation, from the nerdy creative heroes of Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs and How to Train Your Dragon to curmudgeonly hermits like Shrek or Wall-E or Carl from Up. This archetype is so common that another recent animated film of note, Rango, included involved passages of quasi-academic meta-commentary on it. Of course, Rango’s more proximal target of criticism was the similar Hollywood Western archetype of the heroic frontier stranger, which only testifies to the prevalence of the ostracized hero figure who ultimately finds redemption and social recognition.

But I’m circling away from ParaNorman, and what makes it special relative to these other pieces of entertainment focused on similar themes. Norman’s town, Blithe Hollow, is patterned on Salem, Massachusetts, a town infamous for the witch hysteria, trials, and executions of its 17th century Puritan settlers that has since parlayed that infamy into a lucrative and kitschy tourist trade, especially during the Halloween season. The aforementioned crisis that faces Blithe Hollow (spoiler a-comin’) involves a similar witch hunt history. Four centuries past, a local tribunal of Pilgrim citizens sentenced a young girl named Agatha to death for practicing witchcraft. In revenge, she placed a curse on these elders that has only been kept at bay down to Norman’s day by diligent annual appeasement of her restless spirit. But that appeasement is at an end, and the so-called witch’s curse takes full effect on the town, unleashing her malevolent spirit and raising the corpses of the Puritans from the grave.

Though this material has been neutered a little upon delivery, it’s still heady stuff for a kid’s flick. But then, many of the film’s highlights are of a macabre nature, from the zombie Pilgrims losing limbs and even heads to a high-black-comedy sequence of Norman wresting a vital book away from the rigor-mortis clutches of the deceased guardian of the curse-secrets, a mountain of a homeless man voiced by John Goodman, so it’s perhaps par for the course. What is headiest about ParaNorman, though, is the layered exploration of the various consequences of the social exclusion of minorities and of difference.

Our pint-sized hero is not accepted by his peers, but then neither is his putative best friend Neil (Tucker Albrizzi), kind of a more obese, less remedial-class version of Ralph Wiggum. The transient Mr. Prenderghast, an isolated, ranting pill-popper who is spoken of like a human disease, is an object lesson for Norman (whose ghost-conversing gift he shares) concerning the social costs of irreconcilable difference. Even Neil’s muscular, jockish, mechanically-inclined older brother Mitch (a funny supporting role for Casey Affleck) is more of an outsider than he initially seems, as revealed in a great stinging parting punchline to the movie-length sexual interest shown in him by Norman’s cheerleader sister Courtney (Anna Kendrick, also very funny).

Surely this is indicative of some sort of digestive ailment for our hero.

But the plot’s grounding in the colonial witch hysteria links the gifted but misunderstood pariah archetype to more serious historical currents of persecution and oppression. ParaNorman makes a restrained but firm point that commercializing the witch hunts glosses over the narrow-minded moral horror at their core. The witch hunts, in early America as in Europe, targeted the outsiders, the oddballs, those who didn’t quite fit into the social fabric (very often unmarried and thus independent women), and humiliated, imprisoned, and sometimes killed them. The impulse feeding into this oppression and even elimination of social outcasts inspired the Third Reich’s Final Solution, ethnic cleansing in the former Yugoslavia, the Inquisition, the Armenian Genocide, and the list of horrors goes on. ParaNorman simplifies this impulse for its younger audience to an expression of the dominant class’ innate sense of fear, but that elides the way that such subjugation of social scapegoats can grant considerable power to the subjugators. These deadly pogroms are only the most extreme result of social division, but this is a film that recognizes that such reactions are hardly the most uncommon ones.

Most wonderfully and generously, though, ParaNorman turns the tables on the oppressors, has a laugh at their rigid ideology, and transforms them into remorseful and even sympathetic figures. The Puritan zombies initially pursue Norman and his comrades like standard horror-movie monsters, but their staunch Protestant ethics are hilariously shaken and overwhelmed when faced with Blithe Hollow’s modern hedonistic vices. The monsters become the targets of the town’s fearful and ignorant wrath instead of brandishing such wrath themselves, and it chastens them and allows them to humbly accept and facilitate Norman’s help in their quest to end the curse, as well as to belatedly disavow the antagonistic social politics that engendered it.

In this indelible moment, Fell and Butler pivot from one clear horror-canon reference point to another, leaving behind the social breakdown assumptions of the venerable zombie genre ur-text The Night of the Living Dead for the prototypical misunderstood outcast narrative of classic film horror: James Whale’s Frankenstein (directly quoted here, as a pitchfork-wielding mob set their town hall alight in order to fell the undead Pilgrims trapped inside, as was done to Boris Karloff’s doomed monster). Whale himself was a homosexual who may have seen his career cut short due to straight society’s prejudices, and it’s hardly a stretch to read these elements into the themes of his most famous film work and, through its homages, into ParaNorman as well.

While it may do much of its plot, character, and thematic work along conventional lines, ParaNorman surmounts cliché by virtue of the richness and depth of its metaphorical contexts. There’s much more to be dug up here than the old bones of a simple pariah narrative; it’s a reanimated body constituted of the plights of social outcasts, past, present, and future. It’s a film that not only speaks for those who are different.  It deeply understands their experience of pain, and Norman, the outcast hero, triumphs in the end by coming to a similar understanding.

Categories: Film, Reviews

A Sojourn in California: Thoughts on San Diego

January 6, 2013 Leave a comment

It’s not so much that San Diego gets a bum rap as it gets not too much of a rap at all. Coming in a distant third amongst California urban centres after Los Angeles (the sprawling western balancing load of American ideology, its entertainment complex countering and modifying that of New York City) and San Francisco (one of the nation’s aesthetic jewels as well as its open-minded Left Coast progressive conscience), San Diego is a distinctly second-tier American metropolis in terms of national recognition as well as population and cultural influence (although it has given the world Cameron Crowe, Tony Hawk, and Dr. Seuss, among other prominent names).

A longtime military town with multiple naval and armed forces bases, San Diego has often been considered the conservative counterweight to the dominant liberalism of the state’s northerly cities, its mild and consistent climate attracting more set-in-their-ways retirees as well. Dotted with family-friendly resorts and attractions like SeaWorld, Legoland and the San Diego Zoo, it has always seemed more staid and laid-back than most of its already legendarily laid-back state, which for all of its cliches is as relentlessly self-improving as any other wealthy and competitive part of the country.

IMG_1316If all of this is, generally speaking, accurate enough, then none of it terribly diminishes the city’s appeal as a travel destination. San Diego has more than its fair share of physical beauty (a measure by which it outstrips L.A. and contends with S.F.), from its pristine beaches (Mission and Pacific Beaches, hubs of the city’s considerable surf culture, are especially notable) to the high desert-scrub headlands at Point Loma and Torrey Pines State Reserve. The favourable climate is a horticulturist’s dream, and the rich variation of vegetation is a revelation to a visitor accustomed to seasonal bareness in the dead of winter.

The area’s real gem is a man-made one, however. The lustrous Balboa Park north of downtown may just be the most beautiful public green space in the United States, if not on the whole continent. Mostly set out, built, and landscaped for the Panama-California Exposition of 1915 and continued for the California Pacific International Exposition of 1935, the park’s edifices saw the forging of the distinctive Spanish Colonial Revival style that predominates in much of the city to this day. It also left one of the finest and most user-friendly urban cultural spaces ever created, consisting of a series of museums (including the San Diego Museum of Art, the Timken Museum of Art and the San Diego Museum of Man, with its distinctive dome and tower), theatres, thematic gardens (the redwood-slatted Botanical Building and lush Palm Canyon are the highlights), and that world-class zoo as well (which lives up to its hype, after all). Out-prettying even (the admittedly overrated) Central Park in New York, Balboa Park is reason enough to make at least one visit to the city.

San Diego also has a rich history, tracing its roots back to the era of European exploration and Spanish colonization. Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo, a Portuguese navigator sailing under the Spanish flag, was the first European to set foot in Southern California when he landed on Point Loma and explored the bay in 1542. A national monument at the pinnacle of this promontory, overlooking the whole of the city as well as the open ocean, commemorates his landing. A Spanish mission and the establishment of the settlement now called Old Town followed, as well as the gamut of American annexation, civic expansion, and repeated renewal that characterizes the march of the historical record across the American Southwest.

IMG_1397Although the Spanish-Mexican history (and continued demographic and cultural reality) of San Diego remains a key feature of the city’s profile as well as one of its main touristic marketing ploys, the discomfort and dissonance of these features when faced with the homogenizing imperatives of modern American capitalism and nationalism is also evident. The Old Town State Historic Park is an uneasy hybrid of a very American character, its historic reconstructions and museums operating alongside overpriced shops and boutiques selling everything from quasi-Mexican handmade gifts and crafts to artisanal salsas, candies, and root beer. This commodified Latino-ness extends to the rest of the region, sprinkled with elements of dubiously-dubbed “authentic” Mexican culture (one might reply that “authentic” Mexico is but a few miles to the south in the infamous Tijuana and need not be approximated in a mere cross-border taco shop). This uncertainty is emblematic of the unsettled imperial status of all parts of America that were formerly parts of Mexico, an inheritance of the forcible, unresolved annexation of these rich, highly-exploitable lands that cannot simply be sated in the citizen’s psyche by any number of adopted place names and hand-tossed tortillas.

Despite these nagging feelings and a measure of confirmation of the conservative stereotypes initially mentioned, San Diego actually surprises with its tendency to emphasize the more positive features of the American character while subsuming the negative ones. It’s a lovely town and a relaxing place to find one’s self, and the hectic upwards straining for material gain and economic survival that has long characterized the nation is mostly hidden behind sun-drenched patios and sunset surf. San Diego is not so exciting, but it is universally, thoroughly pleasant. Travel ought to be a big enough tent to accommodate both of these types of experience.

Categories: Travel

Film Review: Roman Polanski – Wanted and Desired

January 3, 2013 1 comment

Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired (2008; Directed by Marina Zenovich)

A superb documentary that is rarely, if ever, objective about its subject, Wanted and Desired examines the strange, tragic and frustratingly unresolved saga of Polish-French film director Roman Polanski. Famous not only for superb, stylish films like Rosemary’s Baby, Chinatown, and The Pianist but also for suffering through the 1969 murder of his pregnant wife Sharon Tate by the Manson Family, Polanski has become notorious after being arrested for the statutory rape of a 13-year-old girl in 1977 and subsequently fleeing the United States and avoiding the charges since. In his self-necessitated exile, he has continued making films but has not yet faced justice for his law-breaking behaviour, a source of continued controversy.

With no over-arching narration, the remembrances of talking heads are relied upon for exposition and observation, and above all for opinion on the contentious subject at the centre of the film. Wanted and Desired takes on the child-rape charges that continue to animate the still-active Polanski controversy head-on, but employs a tone of circumstantial dismissal of punishment for the crime, for the most part. Polanski himself comes across as excessively casual, careless even; how much of that is simple Continental jouissance and how much is transference of buried grief is known to none. Attempts are quite obviously made to connect the tragedies and follies of his life with his art, but I think his films are best seen as artful tangents from what he’s lived through, escapes into related but obscured aesthetic fantasy. The main issue that remains alive at the core of Polanski’s tale is whether undeniable cinematic artistry and considerable personal tragedy, as well as a proscription of movements and constant worry at being extradited to the U.S., balances out an act as heinous as knowingly drugging and sexually assaulting a minor. One should not need to make such an obvious point, but just because Polanski made Chinatown and his pregnant wife was brutally slaughtered by hippie maniacs does not absolve him from the crime even he can’t help but admit that he committed.

Whether one feels that Polanski’s 30-year exile from his adopted country is punishment enough for his crimes (or felonies, or moral failures, or whatever you choose to call them), it’s hard to argue with the film’s explication of the bizarre miscarriage of justice that was his legal proceedings. It’s truly an odd sequence of legal events, and director Marina Zenovich embraces the procedural strangeness of it, perhaps as an escape from the thornier questions that lay behind it. Despite this focus on legal technicality over moral absolutes (or perhaps because of it), Wanted and Desired emerges as an exceedingly well-made documentary that generally does ask the right questions, though not always with the right degree of amplification, it should be said.

Categories: Film, Reviews