For someone like me, who retains a childlike delight in the art of animation and eats up the spectacular technological advances that this fast-fluxing medium keeps undergoing, reviewing each new offering that pushes the envelope a bit becomes a challenge in that I’m beginning to run out of superlatives. Even though I skipped The Lorax and the Madagascar and Ice Age franchise sequels on general principles, so far this year I’ve highly praised Arrietty, Brave and Pirates: Band of Misfits. And I’m still looking forward, to a greater or lesser extent, to Frankenweenie, Hotel Transylvania, Wreck-It Ralph and Rise of the Guardians.
So where does that leave me when it comes to describing ParaNorman, other than to say that it’s quite wonderful? I went to see it primarily because it was made by Laika, the same animation house that produced Henry Selick’s Coraline in 2009. I had some problems with Coraline, but they had to do entirely with what this diehard Neil Gaiman geek saw as a completely unnecessary plot change: introducing a boy character who wasn’t in the book to rescue the heroine (who was quite capable of rescuing herself, thank you very much). But the movie still had a great deal to recommend it, including groundbreaking use of 3-D technology and a visual aesthetic that was remarkably dark and edgy for a “kids’ movie.”
Not being based on a quasi-sacred text of modern children’s literature, no such danger of sacrilege existed with ParaNorman, which was both written and directed by Chris Butler. The down side of that, of course, is that the narrative is no Neil Gaiman story, and the bad guys don’t hold a corpselight candle to Coraline’s nightmarish Other Mother for sheer terror potential. They’re just a bunch of goofy – and ultimately rather harmless – undead Puritans, traipsing around a New England town leaving a trail of dropped limbs behind them, and an initially scary “witch” who turns out to be the unquiet spirit of a very annoyed young girl who was unjustly accused of sorcery by said Puritans.
The town, called Blithe Hollow, is clearly patterned after Salem, Massachusetts: It has turned an ugly episode from its Colonial past into a thriving tourist industry. And a large part of the pleasure of looking at ParaNorman lies in the way in which its stop-motion animation – an exquisitely blended amalgam of claymation, models, paintings and CGI – renders tiny details of the protagonist’s blue-collar neighborhood so that they seem instantly recognizable and real to a native Northeasterner. In low-angled morning light as Norman (Cody Smit-McPhee) walks to school, a rusty bicycle leans against a clapboard house whose corners don’t form exact 90-degree angles; the image arrests the eye for a moment before we move on to another small visual treat, and another and another. An awful lot of TLC went into the crafting of this movie.
The plot isn’t particularly brilliant, but it serves as a vector for discussion with our kids of some issues much on the minds of youth and their parents in the contemporary world – especially middle-school-aged kids like Norman. He’s the “weird kid” in his town, relentlessly bullied and nearly friendless because he sees dead people. In fact, he’s consistently late to school because he needs to exchange small talk with every ghost on his route through town. At home, his deceased Grandma (Elaine Stritch, who is a hoot) keeps him company on the living room couch while he watches zombie movies, but neither his parents (Leslie Mann and Jeff Garlin) nor his sister Courtney (Anna Kendrick), a self-centered, airheaded, Valley Girl-talking cheerleader, can see her. Tucker Albrizzi is charmingly dorky as Neil, the “fat kid” in town who knows what it’s like to be bullied and desperately wants to be Norman’s friend.
The only adult who takes Norman’s gift of second sight seriously is his “crazy” uncle, Mr. Prenderghast (John Goodman), who has spent his life appeasing the spirit of the dead “witch” so that the members of the deceased Puritan jury who condemned her don’t stir from their graves. Prenderghast is on his last legs, and determined to bequeath his annual task to his nephew. Norman ends up having to read an old book on the witch’s unmarked gravesite after the zombies start slouching about Blithe Hollow’s downtown, riling the townsfolk.
The stealth message of ParaNorman is about the price that a whole community pays for bullying, intolerance and fear of people who are “different” (including being dead). When Norman’s unorthodox behavior turns out to be reality-based, he finds some unlikely allies, including Alvin, the “mean kid” at school who has hitherto made his life hell. And it’s only by showing compassion for the “witch” whom everyone feared that Norman is able to restore order, break the town’s ancient curse and free the dead of their guilt so that they can rest in peace. For my 17-year-old moviegoing companion, who is active in his high school’s Gay/Straight Alliance, the movie’s pièce de résistance was the moment when we are tipped off that a certain rather macho-appearing character is actually gay – a first, I think, for a mainstream movie aimed at kids.
Although ParaNorman is primarily a comedy and not particularly gory or violent (except insofar as the zombies keep falling to pieces), several scenes are rather intense and some images probably too frightening for small children. But if you’ve got a tween or teen or two handy, take them along to see this flick while it’s still around – and see it in 3-D for sure. It’s a fun romp for older kids, a joy to look at for grownup cinephiles, and you and your brood will surely find some enlightening topics to discuss on the way home from the theatre.