“There’s nothing wrong with being scared, Norman, so long as you don’t let it change who you are.”
The second feature from stop-motion supremos Laika, ParaNorman is perhaps a perfectly pitched family-friendly ghost story. Its scares are quick and sharp rather than the pervasive creepiness of Coraline’s other world and, although it features zombies, there is sufficient slapstick to undercut their horror. The titular Norman is a kid with the ability to speak to the dead, something that results in his ostracisation as a freak until he becomes the only one capable of saving the town. The derivative tale might kindly be described as “traditional”, with an interesting conclusion that revolves around the power of storytelling, a theme that Laika would explore further in the extraordinary Kubo and the Two Strings. Although the voice cast features a number of high profile names, unusually for animated fare they are not hired to be recognisable, only Christopher Mintz-Plasse being easily identifiable as Norman’s bully. The artistry of Laika’s character design is the highlight, eschewing the generically smooth features that pervade most animation for a distinctive and fresh appearance to each of their films.
“Bronco Henry told me that a man was made by patience and the odds against him.”
The Power of the Dog is a wonderful slow-burn character-driven Western from writer/director Jane Campion. Phil Burbank is an unusual role for Bennedict Cumberbatch, a man seemingly focused more on the corporeal than the intellectual. He is initially introduced as a misogynistic rancher whose acts of dispassionate and deliberate cruelty are unsettling to watch without the need for physical violence, though we discover that he was not always the brutish cowboy and that this is an intentionally cultivated persona. The film’s inciting incident is his brother’s marriage (of which Phil plainly disapproves) but Campion has structured the film obtusely so that, whilst we know some sort of confrontation is inevitable, the narrative direction is never clear to the audience. This proves an effective way to force the viewer simply to appreciate the character development in the moment, rather than pre-empting the arc. There are clear parallels to There Will Be Blood, particularly in the patriarchal friction between powerfully overbearing men who carved out the frontier and subtler educated people who would ultimately succeed them. Campion’s immersive approach is not entirely without fault, with The Power of the Dog oddly sidelining some characters midway through the film, whilst its abrupt conclusion is simultaneously clever and somewhat dissatisfying.