Kodi Smit-McPhee, Tucker Albrizzi, Anna Kendrick, Casey Affleck, John Goodman, Leslie Mann, Jeff Garlin, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Elaine Stritch
(Focus Features; US theatrical: 17 Aug 2012 (General release); UK theatrical: 17 Aug 2012 (General release); 2012)
We critics love to complain about how Hollywood fails the family. Instead of providing them with rich, substantive entertainment for all ages, they gather up a bunch of known names, plug them into an already established CGI relic, and count up the international box office receipts. The product doesn’t have to be good, it just has to be… product. So when something comes along worth celebrating, that takes the time to be defining and different, we naturally do so with a fair amount of apprehension. After all, the studio suits wouldn’t subject us to so much mediocrity if the demo didn’t eat it up in droves. Now comes ParaNorman, the latest from the company behind the compelling Neil Gaiman adaptation, Coraline and it stands as one of the best animated features of the year. Naturally, one is wary of such a pronouncement, and not because of aesthetics.
No, when something as special as this comes along, joy must be always juxtaposed against reality. Films like this are few and far between; it’s emotional, exciting, and endearing. Like Trick ‘r’ Treat or The Cabin in the Woods, this is a heartfelt homage to horror movies past and present, a giddy combination of Goosebumps and the Groovie Goolies. It’s reminiscent of the child-friendly frights delivered decades ago, titles like Mad Monster Party, but with a fresh, post-modern attitude. It’s also a languid lament for being different, for not being accepted and not finding easy or lasting interpersonal connections or friendships. It carefully treads the same stereotypical waters as other ‘outsider as hero’ fairytales while turning the standard scary movie tropes on their ironic, inviting head. The result is a return to the days when such films talked to kids, not down at them.
Norman (voiced by Kodi Smit-McPhee) is a typical nerd, living in a town best known for its witch trial past and present day ‘curse.’ Few believe in such nonsense, but not our hero. He himself is ‘blessed’ with the ability to see the dead, ghosts who wander the streets and suburban homes lost and unable to settle their earthly business. This drives his mom (Leslie Mann), dad (Jeff Garlin) and teen sister Courtney (Anna Kendrick) bonkers and makes him an easy target for school bully Alvin (Christopher Mintz-Plasse). When Norman’s crazy uncle (John Goodman) informs him that he is the only one capable of stopping the impending destruction of the town, our tiny hero has to prepare for the worse. Turns out, the curse is real and involves the raising of the dead. Now Norman must team up with his chubby pal Neil (Tucker Abrizzi), dim jock Mitch (Casey Affleck) and an unlikely ally to stop the spirits once and for all.
As madly inventive as anything from Pixar yet geared toward the aging fright fan in all of us, ParaNorman is a godsend. It should be greeted with choirs and carnivals, not the cynical snubs of an Ice Age/Shrek/Madagascar brainwashed brood. This is smart, sophisticated storytelling, each little detail adding another layer of lovability to what is, already, a dread geek’s dream. The notion of boy vs. the undead drags up images both happy and horrifying and ParaNorman doesn’t shy away from either. This is not scary so much as unsettling, and the humor is gentle, not driven by already antiquated pop culture references and crude cracks at bodily functions. Everything centers around our undersized hero, his small circle of associations, and the immense burden placed on his delicate, dorky shoulders.
Directors Sam Fell and Chris Butler do an excellent job of establishing the melancholy life Norman wanders through. His small town is drawn in delicate, direct details and the character design suggests a combination of cartoon and real world association. This is especially true of the teens, from Courtney’s Kardashain-esque bottom and Mitch’s embellished cut athleticism. Norman and Neil might look like easy exaggerations, but you’ve seen kids like this walking home alone from school every day, their heads hung to avoid eye contact. Even more impressive are the monsters, an equally clever combination of recognizable looks and scary movie softening. Underage audience members might be frightened by these figures, initially, but ParaNorman does some very interesting with them during the third act.
In fact, it’s this transformation that turns ParaNorman from a cute coming-of-age joke to a genuine delight. We expect the standard heroes and villains from a family film, the creators believing that anything more complicated will cause the wee one’s brain to explode (or, perhaps, inspire too many unanswerable questions for Mom and Dad to deal with). But here, such lines are blurred, sometime on purpose, sometimes more subtlety. We always suspect that those who initially come across as bad will show a softer side eventually. ParaNorman plays on those expectations and then pushes them aside to deliver well-drawn, dimensional… beings.
Still, parents might fret that they are taking their unprepared progeny to something that might scar them for life, and ParaNorman does dwell in the dark side. But it’s no more “terrifying” than a spooky bedtime story, or the various Potters/Snickets/Steins out there. Fell and Butler lessen the possible impact with plenty of humor and lots of heart. Yes, there will still be a few “between the fingers” moments for the more sheepish of your offspring, but for many, this will be there macabre jumping off point, the exact moment when their love of all things horror came into being. We obsessives all have them, a movie or series that showed us the value within the often dismissed genre. ParaNorman is so much more than one big boo. Luckily, there’s a little of that here as well.