‘ParaNorman’ animation provides horror, comedy and brains

“Brains,” the zombie moans as he edges closer and closer; meanwhile a woman screams as she watches in horror.

While this scenario may seem like it’s from a typical zombie slasher flick, it is the opening sequence to “ParaNorman,” directors Chris Butler and Sam Fell’s delightfully charming 3-D stop motion animation film.

The movie follows Norman (Kodi Smit-McPhee), an 11-year-old boy who can see and talk to dead people. While his town, Blithe Hollow, is celebrating its anniversary, Norman learns that the founder has left the citizens a curse: the seven people responsible for a witch’s (Jodelle Ferland) death 300 years ago are resurrected annually as zombies. Because Norman is the only one who can communicate with the dead, he is the only one who can resolve the issue.

Butler, who wrote as well as directed “ParaNorman,” pays homage to other films of its genre. In addition to borrowing the premise from M. Night Shyamalan’s “The Sixth Sense” — a film about a young boy can see the dead — Butler pays tribute to other horror classics. The scene where a group of teens drives over a body on the side of the road resembles the plotline to “I Know What You Did Last Summer.” Meanwhile, another scene features the “Halloween” theme as Norman’s ringtone, as well as Norman’s friend Neil (Tucker Albrizzi) dressed with “Friday the 13th’s” Jason Voorhes’s signature hockey mask.

Despite the ghostly subject matter, the scariest part of the film is grounded in real issues. Anyone can relate to being labeled and bullied as an outsider, or listening to parents arguing, or being ignored like Norman has. The film excels at exploring childhood insecurities and imparting didactic lessons without being too preachy. As Norman’s mom (Leslie Mann) tells him, “Some people say things that may seem mean, but they do it because they are afraid.”

Like the film “Coraline” — which Butler worked as the storyboard supervisor for, the stop motion animation of “ParaNorman” also succeeds at flowing seamlessly as piece of art. In one visually thrilling scene, Norman appears mentally disturbed while talking to invisible imaginary friends. The scene beautifully transitions into the subjective view through Norman’s eyes, revealing the ghosts surrounded by their magical ghostly green auras.

Although “ParaNorman” does many things well, some of the humor seems a bit excessive, especially when the jokes are built for cheap laughs. For example, in one scene, when Norman’s sister Courtney (Anna Kendrick) says the situation “is getting completely out of hand,” a zombie hand appears right in front of her. Although this may seem funny at first, if the same humor device is overused throughout the film, it ceases to be as funny because it borders on cheesy.

There are a few consistent gems though. Elaine Stritch, who voices Norman’s sassy dead grandma, has the funniest lines. In one scene when she is watching a zombie swallow brains on TV while knitting, she responds, “That’s not very nice. He’s going to ruin his appetite.”

Butler also pokes fun at stereotypes, using them as a source of humor and for comic effect. For instance, when Neil is looking to his other brother Mitch (Casey Affleck) to set an example, he argues, “Mitch, you’re the oldest!”

Mitch, a stereotypically well-built, dumb jock often found lifting weights or exercising in his spare time, replies, “Not mentally!”

Butler successfully incorporates this same tongue-in-cheek humor throughout the film, as well as utilizes comedic timing, irony, and satire. For example, in once scene, a “Crime Prevention Ceremony” sign is used to commit an act of breaking in and entering. In another scene, a mob of humans hunts the band of flesh-eating zombies — turning modern convention upside-down.

Not only does “ParaNorman” provide a fresh portrayal to the horror genre — bringing both reality and magic to life — but the movie also proves that Butler has just the right amount of brains to do so.

“ParaNorman” was written by Chris Butler and directed by Butler and Sam Fell.

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‘Spider-Man’: the ‘amazing’ classic

It is amazing how much changes in a decade. This is a age where Google searches allow you to readily research anyone at a click of a button, holographic diagrams become the norm for viewing pleasure (think of the the arsenal of technology Tony Stark has at his fingertips), and boys can build electronic locks for their bedroom door — or at least those are some of the technological advances portrayed in “The Amazing Spider-Man.”

Gone are the days when the most advanced bits of machinery included the glider Green Goblin rode on in Sam Raimi’s earlier adaption of Stan Lee and Steve Ditko’s “Spider-Man” story. Director Marc Webb’s film has a fog machine that can distribute cures (or toxins). But that and a new spandex suit aren’t the only differences between this Spider-Man and the one actor Tobey Maguire portrayed 10 years earlier.

Whereas the Maguire version was essentially a love story, “The Amazing Spider-Man” frames the story of Peter Parker (Andrew Garfield) around the disappearance of his dad, Oscorp scientist Richard Parker (Campbell Scott). Peter is still raised by Aunt May (Sally Field) and Uncle Ben (Martin Sheen), but he is haunted by his father’s image, brilliance, and legacy. “You look just like him,” Uncle Ben tells Peter after he puts on his dad’s old glasses. Even the words of Uncle Ben’s famous “With great power comes great responsibility” speech aren’t his own: “Your father believed if someone could do moral good for somebody, it was your moral obligation to do it.”

“The Amazing Spider-Man” also brings in a new school (Midtown Science High School), villain (Richard Parker’s old colleague, Dr. Kurt Connors), and love interest (Gwen Stacy, the police captain’s daughter). Although Emma Stone as Gwen is smart and intelligent and stubborn and not always the damsel in distress (she comes to Peter’s aid a small handful of times), fans of the strong and spunky Stone in her claim-to-fame title roles such as those in “Easy-A” or “The Help” will be somewhat disappointed. Perhaps it’s because we’re missing Stone’s narration as the lead — or the fact she’s blond and not a fiery redhead — but she seems much more milquetoast, even as she rebels against her father’s wishes when pursuing a relationship with Spider-Man.

Andrew Garfield does bring a good range of reluctant awkwardness (like when he’s stuttering through conversations with Gwen) and cheekiness (like when he’s standing up to the latest bully) to the Peter Parker character. Peter certainly isn’t perfect and Garfield offers the pallet of high and low emotions a teenager would certainly experience — from skipping happily when he gets a date to flippant moodiness when he’s caught missing his curfew because he went looking for another fight. Yet Peter is a good person raised by good people. There are scenes when Peter tucks in his Aunt after she falls asleep on the couch or when Peter saves a boy from a car falling off a bridge. Garfield has the bravado of a fireman and looks like a hero as he tells the boy to “put on the [Spider-Man] mask because it’s going to make you strong.” But in this day and age, a mask has its own brand of connotations.

Yes, Sam Raimi’s “Spider-Man” seems dated compared to “The Amazing Spider-Man.” But “The Amazing Spider-Man” is dated too. In an age when 12-year-old girls have been warned that wearing balaclavas may get her into trouble, Spider-Man is just another Internet hero whose arrests and battles with law enforcement officers inspire many. And that message — like the story of “Spider-Man” — never gets old.

“The Amazing Spider-Man” was written by James Vanderbilt, Alvin Sargent, and Steve Kloves; based on the Marvel comic books created by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko. The film was directed by Marc Webb.

‘Death at a Funeral’: a comedy to watch

You know those horribly embarrassing family reunions where Murphy’s law works like a charm while everything else that can go wrong, will go wrong? Like having your first Thanksgiving dinner with your in-laws and forgetting to cook the turkey, Director Frank Oz’s film “Death at a Funeral” operates in that same dysfunctional atmosphere where — like a house precariously built with cards — the whole thing could collapse at any given moment. Although the ordeal is not so fun for the host, it’s fun to watch, remember and reminisce about.

“Death at a Funeral” is hosted by a Brit named Daniel (Matthew Macfadyen), one of the two sons of the late Edward (Gareth Milne). Daniel and his girlfriend Jane (Keeley Hawes) want to move into a flat together, but Daniel hasn’t put in the deposit for the apartment. When Daniel’s brother Robert (Rupert Graves), an accomplished novelist who lives in New York City, forgets to bring his half to pay for their father’s funeral, Daniel is saddled with not only his obligation to his girlfriend and family, but also with sponsoring the whole proper funeral.

However, bringing such a volatile cast who both love and cannot stand each other in such close proximity is like dropping a lit match next to a barrel of gasoline. Uncle Alfie (Peter Vaughan) is an old and irritable Ebenezer Scrooge in a wheelchair. Cousin Martha’s boyfriend Simon (Alan Tudyk) has an accidental encounter with Special-K (and not the cereal), and Martha (Daisy Donovan) is trying to keep him occupied and placated while he’s having hallucinations at the funeral. Cousin Troy (Kris Marshall) has a bottle of Ecstasy pills disguised in a Valium bottle that he keeps losing. And this stranger named Peter (Peter Dinklage) has a secret about Daniel’s father, which Daniel would very much like to keep under wraps.

With as much dramatic irony contained in Dean Craig’s screenplay as any Shakespearean play, you would expect flames and explosions as the characters tiptoe across a minefield, but the wit and comedic punches in the film are often quieter, like peeling the layers off an onion. It may sting and you may be crying tears of laughter, but the appeal and absolute genius of “Death at a Funeral” is well done. A funeral is so private and personal that viewers will feel like voyeurs as they gleefully watch the self-absorbed and human characters fall apart. Meanwhile, there’s a real cathartic element to the film where the blunders and tears are only funny until someone actually dies. And with a movie’s called “Death at a Funeral,” you can’t help but wonder who’s going to die.

“Death at a Funeral” was directed by Frank Oz and written by Dean Craig.