Are these movies for kids? Well, yes and no. Some terrifying stuff in both of them. In the case of “ParaNorman”, it looks like it was being marketed to children. But some quick research by parents would have alerted them to the themes of witch hanging and speaking with the dead. But how many parents actually take the time? This parent does. So, it was with some concern when I found out after the fact that this was the film chosen when my 7-year old’s day camp had a rainy day. I was not happy. I ended up having to wait for DVD before finally seeing “ParaNorman”. So, like 2009’s “Coraline” before it(the previous stop-motion animation from the studio Laika), I missed experiencing it in 3D and on the big screen. Btw, I adored “Coraline”(it made my Top Ten of 2009 list)—and I did eventually see it in 3D on a specially released disc with enclosed glasses. The effect wasn’t half bad in my living room—must have been superb in the theater. Maybe I’ll get to watch “ParaNorman” that way eventually too. As for Peter Jackson’s “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey”, I planned on skipping that entirely. The decision to split a 300 page children’s fantasy novel into three separate three-hour epics(it was originally planned as just two)smelled of a greed-inspired cash grab prompted by the legendary success of Jackson’s original “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy from a decade ago. “Why make two billion dollars, when we can gross THREE billion dollars.” Couldn’t you just hear that pitch line being given by some executive in a studio back office? Thinking about it made me fume, and my retaliation was to be a boycott. Then an official DVD screener found its way into my hands, and that changed the ballgame. I rationalized, “I might as well”. At least I wouldn’t have to venture to the multiplex, choose between IMAX 3D, regular 3D, or this 48 frames per second(instead of 24)nonsense. You needed a menu to attend this one. Now, did I watch this at home with my five and seven-year old boys. No, not yet. It can wait. Some of it is a bit too creepy for them, methinks. Besides, we can always catch up in a few years and turn first to the original “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy from Mr. Jackson. I’m certain it will prove to be the better choice.
Now, are either of the films good for adults? Yes, both to some extent. In fact, the pair performed just about exactly as I expected them too. If “ParaNorman” doesn’t quite soar to the heights set by “Coraline”, my only guess is that the co-directing team of Sam Fell and Chris Butler couldn’t quite match up to the renowned talents of Henry Selick(“Coraline”, “James and the Giant Peach” and “The Nightmare Before Christmas”). And if “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” plays like the bloated, money-grubbing spectacle it is, while sprinkled with occasional thrilling sequences from the unjustly annointed master director, Peter Jackson—I’m hardly surprised. Jackson is a major talent who underperformed after the “Rings” trilogy, by first giving us his overstuffed 2005 “King Kong” remake(187 minutes!), and then his horrendously mishandled adaptation of Alice Sebold’s novel “The Lovely Bones”. But if you never witnessed his astounding 1994 film “Heavenly Creatures”, then you have no idea just how maverick and inspired Mr. Jackson can be. It’s his best work—“The Lord of the Rings” is simply his most well-known accomplishment(that’s obviously an understatement, LOTR fans are legion). “ParaNorman” focuses on the exploits of a young boy named Norman Babcock(voiced by Kodi Smit-McPhee)who sees and has actual conversations with ghosts. Before you know it, the spirit of an angry witch is unleashed—still seething from her execution in the town 300 years prior. And then the dead rise up and walking zombies threaten to take over the town. Then things get surprisingly poignant when it’s revealed that the deceased witch was right around Norman’s age when the townspeople gave her the rope. And “The Hobbit” boasts the return of Gollum(as “performance-captured” via computer technology by Andy Serkis)—and the crowd goes wild. Unfortunately, Gollum’s arrival occurs at roughly the two-hour mark of a nearly 3-hour motion picture—so, it’s a bit of a slog before he appears. We see the young hobbit Bilbo Baggins(nice work from Martin Freeman)reluctantly team with a rowdy and eclectic mix of dwarves, as they head off on an adventure to reclaim the little people’s homes. And they walk and they battle. And they walk and they battle. And they walk and they battle. Is this routine not getting a bit tedious? And is Christopher Lee 150 years old? I admire his virility, but Drac looks ancient. Isn’t this a prequel? Anyway, things certainly liven up once Gollum engages in a deadly game of riddles with Bilbo. Then another big battle. And then it’s over. Nothing special, nothing horrible. It just is.
And that’s the way it is. The over-acheiving Laika studio once again gives us a touching, heartfelt, stop-motion adventure, while Peter Jackson and the “LOTR” team deliver on their “promise” of a pumped-up, stuffed-to-the-gills, middle-earth extravaganza that will probably outgross its predecessors financially, but couldn’t possibly hope to attain the former’s quality. Now, imagine if Guillermo del Toro had directed as originally planned. Now that would have warranted getting worked up over. So, go to the movies and fork over your cash to Warner Bros if you so wish—they’ve given you plenty of visual and auditory options for “The Hobbit”. Just don’t try to persuade me that it doesn’t smell a bit like leftovers. And I think you’ll enjoy the adventures of “ParaNorman”, but it’s spooky and quite dark. So, wait until the kiddies are ten or so before firing up the disc for that one. Grades: “ParaNorman”: B+ “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey”: C+