Thursday, September 13, 2012

We Interrupt This Week's 'Draw From the Sack of Pain' Review to Bring You a Pleasant Surprise.

Well, this has happened here before, so it's not entirely unexpected.  Running into a title that immediately feels like it's due for a write-up, even though you already had something else planned.  Plus, under the circumstances for this title, right now it could use the extra burst of attention for reasons I will go into later.

So I will apologize in advance to anyone who was looking forward to this week being the promised 'check out the weird shit we pulled out of the bag' review and promise that review will be up next week.  In fact, to further render myself dead to rights, I can tell you now that next week you can look forward to the post-apocalyptic 'Warlords of the 21st Century' (AKA 'Battletruck'.)  Whether you want to consider that a promise or a threat I'll let you decide.

Now then, moving on, it's only fair to clarify what pre-empted that (because I can just imagine the groans of disappointment now.)  In this case, it was actually one of those times where I don't mind talking up a film that's still in theaters...cause right now it's in sore need of some extra word of mouth.

That said, recently, spurred on by word of mouth myself, I went to go see Laika Entertainment's latest stop motion offering, ParaNorman.  Now, to start with I just want to say that stop motion is an underappreciated art nowadays, and not that common in animated features.  I mean, on one level, I can see why - in terms of motion and attention to detail, it's a very intensive field that requires some strong attention to detail, patience, and resources.  However, in an age where it's just getting cheaper and easier to do it all by computer, I still can't help but have some love for those who still make the go of it anyway.  I can't stress this love enough, for the record.  The amount of detail these people put into their work is even more impressive given the medium, whether it's something as simple as Norman's room (which is decorated with zombie and monster paraphenalia) or the entire layout of the town of Blithe Hollow, which, alongside its Salem-esque banking on its history of witchcraft, looks very much like a stylistic, but accurate, version of a Massachusetts city.

Seriously, these are just the backgrounds...

As far as this movie itself, this is one of those rare times where I find myself somewhat hedging my vote from the usual 'well, marketing fucked this movie over proper.'  Cause on the one hand, yeah, it didn't really help the movie in terms of publicity (despite reviewing well, the film's box-office numbers have kept it floating at around 3-5.  Which, while not bad, means marketing has already dropped it like a dead fish.)  Which, in turn, is part of why I'm adding another voice to the promotion for it (...for all the credibility that lends.)

On the other side of the marketing coin, the awkward promotion actually made some of the payoff on this film work out quite well.  I mean, the trailers themselves aren't necessarily dishonest about what the film is about - Norman is an introverted, monster-obsessed child who can speak to ghosts, and yes, he is tapped to help his town when an ancient curse raises the dead.  The way the movie handles these elements, however, manages to surprise in several areas.  The zombie storyline, for example, shows a lot more thought than your standard 'they want to just eat the living and can be mowed down as endless hordes' approach.  Appropriately, the townspeople even seem to be in on this as well, as many of their responses when the dead finally rise are informed by the popular cultural knowledge of zombie movies.  It's another aspect of how versed in a lot of the ins and outs of the genre the staff on this movie are, as they manage to make these jokes blend in pretty well without them feeling forced for the sake of a cheap laugh or too obvious.

That said, I have to admit.  Some of the stuff in his room IS pretty cool.

In one quick aside here, one really clever little bit I do want to specifically call out here is a sequence at the start of the movie - the film starts out with the movie-within-a-movie trick as Norman watches a movie on TV.  In playing with this, the animators deliberately made the movie he watches feel more like a movie, making the acting and effects more staged and filtering all of the scenes with little fake scratches and bits of dirt on the film.  It's a very minor effect, but still a nice little touch that lets you know the level of detail and love for the material the people working on this had.

In fact, a lot of the film actually defied expectations for me for the better.  At first, the film does seem like you can guess where it will head, but as it goes on (and it's REALLY hard not to explain this without spoiling, so you all know,) it manages to take the familiar ideas into a whole different direction.  By the last half-hour, I was actually surprised at how ultimately dark some of the material had gotten for a family-targeted feature.  I mean, it still stays at the PG level but...again, you have to see it for yourself, really.  Additionally, the film's resolution manages to take a familiar theme about understanding and the damaging effects of fear and handles it in a way that, all things considered, is actually pretty mature, and trusts the audience to understand, rather than spelling it out for them.

When this is considered one of your nicer moments at school, that should say something...

That said, so you know this isn't going to be an entirely serious affair, the film certainly has its share of lighter moments along the way to keep this from just being dark.  While Norman himself is a bit more grounded, many of the supporting cast lend themselves to more comedic elements that help keep the film moving along.  On this note, the voice cast for this film actually all fit surprisingly well.  It's tough to really pick standouts in this cast, given how well everyone plays their parts (which, trust me, for voice-acting is a lot more impressive than it sounds.)  If I really had to pick any names in particular to point out from this cast, they'd be Kodi Smit-McPhee as Norman and Tucker Albrizzi as his overly supportive friend Neil (still something pretty refreshing about those moments when you hear kids doing good voiceover work), Christopher Mintz-Plasse breaking from cast type as the oafish bully Alvin, and John Goodman in a short role as Norman's borderline insane uncle Prendergast.  Even though Goodman isn't in the film long, he manages to play the role well enough to make it memorable.

Evidence that that 'borderline insane' isn't an exaggeration.  He's actually right, but still pretty unhinged.

It's really kind of a shame Laika Productions films only come out every so often.  At the same time, it makes the payoff that much more rewarding when they do come out.  For a studio that works in an animation style that (sadly) is somewhat niche nowadays, it's nice to see they can still bring an A-game.

Hopefully, if you haven't checked this movie out yet, this gives the incentive to try and track down any theaters still playing it.  Cause really, for as short-changed as it was by marketing, this is one worth the ticket price.

With that, we now return you to your regularly scheduled review (which I can't say I'll be quite as enthusiastic about...but then, that's part of why I go to the bag in the first place. Sometimes it's fun to talk about crap.)

Till next time, remember - Battletruck!

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