What It Is
Norman (Kodi Smit-McPhee) loves zombie movies, monster movies, and all other kinds of movies about dead people, the grosser and gooier the better. His grandmother (Elaine Stritch) watches with him, or more accurately, she sits on the sofa and knits, so she can watch him.
Grandma does this, she says, because she’s made a promise always to look after Norman, even after she’s dead — which she is. Norman’s interactions with her, and with all the other dead people in the quaint New England town of Blithe Hollow, worry his parents (Leslie Mann and Jeff Garlin), mostly because Norman’s known around town as a “freak.” Norman’s reminded of this every day when his sister, Courtney (Anna Kendrick), rolls her eyes and calls him a liar, and again when he goes to school and the resident bully, Alvin (Christopher Mintz-Plasse), writes the word on his locker, then taunts him while his forgettable minions laugh and point. Norman’s one wannabe friend is the other outcast, Neil (Tucker Albrizzi), whom the bullies call “Fatty,” who proves relentless in his efforts to hang out with Norman, despite Norman’s insistence that he wants to be left alone.
Of course, he doesn’t really want to be left alone: everyone wants to be noticed and appreciated, even the ghosts Norman sees: these include, cleverly, car wreck victims, a Civil War veteran on a horse, a gangster with his feet in a cement block, and six victims of a witch’s curse who emerge from their graves as grisly zombies, their jaws hanging and their skin green. Norman is soon called on to deal with this curse, which menaces the town annually, when the witch turns restless.
Norman and Neil, accompanied by Courtney and Neil’s older brother Mitch (Casey Affleck), end up riding out to the graveyard and then the Hall of Records to figure out how to placate the witch. In the meantime, the townspeople grow fearful as the sky turns stormy, carrying pitchforks, torches, and brass knuckles as they blame and mean to punish Norman, and now, his friends too. All this mass bullying comes to a head as Norman learns that the witch was once a victim of bullying too, a little girl named Aggie (Jodelle Ferland) who was accused and convicted during the Salem witch trials.
This backstory grounds ParaNorman’s lesson on bullying, delivered with unusual energy and insight. It’s not just that Alvin or Norman’s dad or even Courtney is mean, only that they’re scared, trying to intimidate him into being more like them, less different. Given his “gift” for chatting with ghosts, Norman has worked through a lot of this being scared business during his 11 years. Wise and open-minded, he’s equipped — though he doesn’t know it right away — to help everyone else learn how to handle being scared without hurting other people.
Why It’s Fun
The story is original and the relationships between characters are terrific, rendered in smart dialogue and excellent stop motion animation. Norman and Neil share a wonderful scene where Neil convinces Norman to check in on his dead dog, “run over by an animal rescue van.” It turns out he’s currently romping in the backyard, cut in half but still joyfully devoted to Neil and happy to meet Norman too. Norman also shares sweet moments with his grandmother and a few scenes with his uncle (John Goodman), who also speaks to dead people before he becomes one. And Courtney flirts hopefully (and rather relentlessly) with the handsome workout fiend Mitch, who remains entertainingly oblivious to her charms.
Norman’s parents, though they’re in place to worry and harangue and finally learn a lesson from their son, are refreshingly not wholly obtuse. His mom, in fact, is pretty sharp, helping him to see what he needs to do.
The 3D is fine but unmemorable. That said, as the movie is mostly set at night, in graveyards and old buildings, it is remarkable that the 3D glasses don’t make it too dark to see.
Who’s Going To Love It
Viewers who like squishy brains, ghostly hazes, and jawbones that fall off faces will be pleased.
Fans of Coraline will be reminded of that movie’s considerable charms and look (both movies come courtesy the studio Laika). In both, the children must sort out the vagaries of adult worlds, growing up but also providing lessons for older folks who’ve lost touch with what’s important. Here, as in Coraline, the framing of that world as utterly weird — whether zombies or townsfolk with pitchforks — makes the “growing up” story metaphorical and, best of all, appealing to kids who like zombies.
What To Be Aware Of
In a movie about zombies and ghosts, some discussion of death and dying is inevitable.
Also inevitable are the jokes about dead bodies: Norman’s efforts to pry a book from the rigamortis-ed hands of his dead uncle’s mammoth corpse turn into a slapstick routine, with the dead man’s head banging on every possible piece of furniture and Norman facing down a big yucky lick from a dead tongue.
A scene in which Mitch hits a zombie with his car leads to some more bad body jokes, including one where he has the dead head in his hands and ends up drop-kicking it far into the distance.
Several scenes show the townspeople in violent and noisy panic, yelling and shaking their tools at Norman and his friends.
Alvin’s early bullying is distressing to see, and too familiar.
A late scene, which goes on for some time, represents the witch’s wrath in ways reminiscent of Japanese horror movies, as well as Ghostbusters or John Carpenter movies. She conjures a huge storm, the earth kind of drops away, and Norman seems assaulted by lightning, wind, and loud noise. It’s a bit harrowing, especially for younger viewers, and it goes on for a few minutes. When Aggie changes from the scary wraithy face-shape in the dark sky, she’s a little alarming in another way, a child whose vengeance might flip into violence at any time. Norman talks her down.
9 out of 10
Directors: Sam Fell, Chris Butler
Cast: Kodi Smit-McPhee, Tucker Albrizzi, Anna Kendrick, Jeff Garlin, Casey Affleck, Leslie Mann, John Goodman, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Jodelle Ferland
Studio: Focus Features
US General Release: August 17, 2012
UK General Release: September 14, 2012