Ghosts, Trolls and Wolves – ParaNorman, Casper, Alpha and Labyrinth

12 mins read

ParaNorman (2012)

Let me start this review by proclaiming my love for stop motion animation and its ability to pull you into new worlds with divine characters. From Isle of Dogs to My Life As A Zucchini and Fantastic Mr Fox, stop motion animation has given us some of the best films of the past twenty years. However, one studio has led the way in this art form alongside British based Aardman, Laika, the Oregon based dream factory behind Coraline, The Corpse Bride and the beautiful and brilliant ParaNorman.

ParaNorman not only pays homage to the classic monster movies of the Universal era but embeds this within the energy and drive of The Monster Squad (1987) and Gremlins (1985). Ultimately, taking the audience far beyond the boundaries of kids entertainment. It’s visual beauty and engaging narrative singing with both intelligence and a love of classic horror. And when this is coupled with the core message that weirdness and difference are cool. ParaNorman rises far above the genre of its birth, providing a sublime slice of escapism that is, without doubt, a modern masterpiece of animation.

Our story opens with a geeky homage to 70s and 80s cinema. A movie within a movie, that quickly cuts to Norman and his grandma in front of the TV. However, Norman’s grandma is dead. And young Norman Babcock (Kodi Smit-McPhee), has the ability not only to see her, but talk to her. As his spectral grandma sits knitting, Norman continues watching the trashy zombie movie on the TV. His grandma showing a keen interest in the action on screen, asking “What’s happening now?” To which Norman replies “Well, the zombie is eating her head”. Grandma keeps knitting, her only feedback, “He’s gonna ruin his dinner. I’m sure if they just bothered to sit down and talk it through, it’d be a different story”. Norman shrugs, before being called to take out the trash by his parents, played by Leslie Mann and Jeff Garlin.

However, as a deadly witches curse threatens to engulf the sleepy town of Blithe Hollow, Massachusetts. Norman’s unique abilities must progress from communing with the dead to freeing an angry spirit from their hate. The rollercoaster of comedy, emotion, and fun that follows is glorious in both animation and performances. While at the same time, a beautiful theatrical score by Jon Brion and characters who instantly embed themselves into your heart, make ParaNorman a deliciously different cinematic delight.  

Director:  Chris Butler and Sam Fell

Cast: Kodi Smit-McPheeAnna KendrickChristopher Mintz-Plasse, Casey Affleck, Tucker Albrizzi

Casper (1995)

Casper the friendly ghost was created in the late 1930s by Seymour Reit and Joe Oriolo, with his first animated appearance coming in 1939. However, despite the popularity of the comic books carrying his name, the character did not make it to a live-action film until 1995. With Steven Spielberg hiring director Brad Silberling to bring the famous apparition to the silver screen. The screenplay developed by Sherri Stoner, Deanna Oliver, and an uncredited J.J. Abrams. 

Despite Spielberg’s backing, Casper did not receive universal praise on its release. With many reviewers pointing to the challenge of stretching the short cartoon into a feature-length film. However, what many reviewers of the time missed was the delicate, loving and tender exploration of grief at the film’s heart. With Casper not only providing a delightful children’s adventure but also encouraging discussion on the nature of death. A subject many children’s films struggle to reflect in a meaningful way. Wrapping its comedy and visual beauty within the deep and highly emotional theme of childhood mortality and parental loss.

But, it’s not all serious, and even though the end may lead a tear or two to run down your cheek, Casper is also full of slapstick humour and fun. With a delightful cast and scrumptious special effects keeping the story engaging and fresh. Meanwhile, both Erik Idle and Cathy Moriarty gloriously ham things up as the villains. The result is a fascinating, funny, yet emotional rollercoaster ride, that in turn appeals to all ages.

Director: Brad Silberling

Cast:  Bill PullmanChristina RicciCathy Moriarty, Eric Idle, Joe Nipote, Joe Alaskey, Brad Garrett

Alpha (2019)

Boy meets wolf in a prehistoric coming of age movie that sings with intelligence and beauty. Alpha may have had an IMAX release here in the UK, but remains a film many people have still not seen. Which is a great pity, as this is a stunning picture, full of creativity and innovation. And while it is a film designed to be seen on the biggest screen possible, its impact on smaller screens is equally impressive.

Keda (Kodi Smit-McPhee), is the firstborn son of a powerful clan leader, Tau (Jóhannes Haukur Jóhannesson). His father slowly training the teenager to one day take control of the tribe; hunting, spear craft and nature central to his instructions. However, Keda’s mother (Natassia Malthe) is less convinced of her partner’s training techniques, stating that Keda “leads with his heart, not his spear.”

Despite her concerns, Tau leads Keda and his tribe out into the plains for his first hunting season. However, as a heard of wildebeest charge the group, Keda hesitates, his young body gored and tossed over the side of a cliff; a ledge breaking his fall where he remains unconscious. Assuming his son is dead, with no way to reach him Tau grieves his loss, eventually leading his men back home.

But, days later, Keda awakes, his leg badly broken; a flash flood helping him back to the ground while a pack of wolves stalk his every step. However, as Keda fights the ravenous wolves, one of the pack is injured. An event that ultimately leads Keda to offer the hand of friendship to the wounded wolf, nursing it back to health. What ensues is an epic journey, as Keda walks the treacherous landscape back home, his injured wolf companion becoming a pioneer of man’s enduring link to our four-legged friends.

There is something distinctly old fashioned in Alpha, a reminder of the live-action adventures of years gone by. It’s relentless energy, rousing score and beauty wrapping the viewer in comfort, fear and hope. While at the same time introducing younger viewers to subtitles, in a film where dialogue takes second place to visual adventure and emotion. The result of which is a truly stunning movie that will ensure audiences of all ages remain glued to the screen.

Director: Albert Hughes

Cast: Kodi Smit-McPheeJóhannes Haukur JóhannessonMarcin Kowalczyk

Labyrinth (1986)

What do you get if you take the powerhouse of Lucasfilm and merge it with the creative energy and beauty of The Jim Henson Company? The answer is, of course, the delightful and ingenious cult classic that is Labyrinth. Its visual beauty, matched by a dynamic story that effortlessly merges classic fairy tale’s into a fantasia of music, comedy and puppets.

Following the equally stunning The Dark Crystal in 1982, Jim Henson and Brian Froud quickly began drafting a new fantasy adventure. However, this time the aim was to produce a lighter tale, wrapped in comedy. The inspiration coming from The Wizard of Oz, as a young girl (Jennifer Connelly) magically finds herself navigating a maze in search of her baby brother. Her brother, having been taken by the Goblin King (David Bowie) on the girl’s reckless instruction. But to navigate the maze, and rescue the infant, the girl must acquire new travelling companions. From the deceitful, yet loving Hoggle to the mighty, yet scared Ludo, and the fearless and eccentric Sir Didymus. However, although Labyrinth has the heart of L. Frank Baum’s classic and timeless Oz, its soul resides in Lewis Carroll’s classic Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland; even though this is not mentioned or signposted as an inspiration.

In many ways, Labyrinth is a classic coming of age film, the maze representing the journey every teenager takes to adulthood. While in turn, reflecting the need to escape the trappings of fantasy as we enter our adult lives and accept our responsibilities. But, unlike many other fantasy-driven ‘coming of age’ pictures, Bowie injects flagrant sexuality and desire. The tall and intensely sexualised Goblin King, almost stalking our young heroine. A symbolic reflection of sex eating away at fantasy and innocence. These elements raise Labyrinth far above the label of being a simple children’s fantasy adventure. Placing it within the same complex discussions that surround many of the fairy tales and books from which it takes its inspiration.

As a result, Labyrinth has the power to speak to audiences of all ages. The colour, music and puppetry inspiring the young, while the comedy, darkness and characters engage older minds. The screenplay by ‘Monty Python’ royalty Terry Jones shining with originality and complexity. While the imagination and genius of Jim Henson and his creature workshop ensure the Labyrinth comes alive with joy, wonder, fear and humour.

Director: Jim Henson

Cast: David BowieJennifer ConnellyToby Froud, Brian Henson, Dave Goelz, Frank Oz

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