Review: ParaNorman (2012)

Norman (Kodi Smit-McPhee) seeks to set the witch's curse to rest. There’s something beautiful and sad about ParaNorman. In one sense the film is an impassioned ode to horror movies and the kind of children who are fascinated by all things ghoulish and grotesque. This makes the movie clever and especially engaging for filmgoers who love horror films themselves.

In another sense, ParaNorman is a very sad, observant, even poignant exploration of bullying, and the dangerous, disturbing forms it can take. In many ways the film acts as a companion piece to Lee Hirsch’s documentary Bully, but while Bully never even dares to explore what makes a bully, ParaNorman seeks to come to some kind of answer. This is brave stuff for what is ostensibly a children’s film.

The entire film focuses on a boy named Norman who lives in the New England town of Blithe Hollow. Lovingly animated by the maestros at Laika, Henry Selick’s stop-motion animation production company, Norman is an outsider whose hair sticks up straight like the Frankenstein Monster’s. He loves horror movies. His room is filled with horror memorabilia, knickknacks, posters — all the assorted odds and ends that define a child’s existence and passions. He even has a lamp that looks like a zombie’s half-exposed brain. But Norman’s oddness doesn’t end at being a horror geek. Norman is ostracized because he can see and talk to the dead.

The film begins with Norman sitting in front of his television watching a low-budget zombie flick. His grandma asks a silly question that only adults ask during such films and Norman nonchalantly answers like it’s no big deal. It’s only when his parents enter the room that we realize Norman is physically alone. There is no one sitting on the couch. Norman’s grandmother is dead. Norman’s dad does little to hide his disgust at Norman’s oddness. His mom tries to defend him, but even she seems exhausted by supporting Norman’s clearly strange beliefs. Her disbelief is obvious and even her love can only go so far. Only the audience knows the truth of Norman’s claims.

Unlike most outsiders in other family films, Norman is not plucky or vibrant or impervious to the abuses his community lays upon him. When he arrives at school, his classmates part for him like they were the Red Sea. Norman doesn’t physically react to this. He merely plods sadly along into the school where he is physically bullied and harassed. But the sadness is there. It’s there every time Norman speaks or moves. As voiced by Kodi Smit-McPhee (The Road), Norman is a child already wearied by life. It’s depressing to realize just how realistic a character Norman is. He resembles the children in Bully far more than most other animated outsiders.

The driving conflict of the film has to do with Norman dealing with a witch’s curse that has plagued Blithe Hollow for 300 years. By being able to communicate with the dead, Norman is the only one able to calm the restless spirit of the witch. This conflict allows for some beautiful animation dealing with zombies and witches and general nightmarish events occurring in the small New England town. The stop motion animation allows the zombies to lumber just right, and some animation of the witch affecting the sky is a feat of special effects that is ever more amazing for being tactile and real.

The adventure aspects are exciting and the film is entertaining on a very basic level. The plot is simple and elegant. On a visual level, the stop-motion animation is just gorgeous. And don’t let all my talk of bullying fool you into thinking this is a dour film. There is plenty of humour to accompany the sadness. ParaNormanentertains you plenty and is sure to enrapture kids, even if small ones may be a little scared.

But what makes the film so special is how it dares to confront the sadness of its characters’ situations, how it addresses bullying while still being an entertaining children’s film.

In a daring move, the film connects Norman’s plight as a bullied schoolchild to the plight of outsiders under the Puritans of the seventeenth century. What this does is not only address that bullying has been a problem in America since its inception (even if it wasn’t recognized as bullying), but also demonstrates that bullying can lead to things much more definite and devastating than ostracizing. Bullying left unchecked leads to death, whether by the bullies’ hands or the victim’s.

There’s a beautiful scene at the film’s climax where Norman has a conversation with the ghost of a victim of bullying from Puritan days. I don’t want to spoil the scene’s eloquence but suffice to say, it elegantly shows that understanding and compassion are what’s needed to counter bullying and that it is ultimately fear that drives people to do awful things.

ParaNorman is delightful as an animated feature, certainly one of the year’s best. But it is also a thoughtful film that seeks to empower the audience and not just entertain it.

ParaNorman (2012)

Directed by Chris Butler and Sam Fell; written by Chris Butler; starring the vocal talent of Kodi Smit-McPhee, Tucker Albrizzi, Anna Kendrick, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Casey Affleck, Leslie Mann, Jeff Garlin, Elaine Stritch, Bernard Hill, Jodelle Ferland, and John Goodman.

8 out of 10