Director : s Chris Butler & Sam Fell
Screenplay : Chris Butler
MPAA Rating : PG
Year of Release : 2012
ParaNorman, a 3D stop-motion horror-comedy love letter to misunderstood outcasts, begins in hilariously meta-fashion, with a bad horror movie-within-the-movie that features an endlessly screaming young woman, a slowly lumbering zombie, and a pulsating electronic score that will immediately light up fans of sleazy Euro-horror. Co-directors Chris Butler and Sam Fell (the former of whom also scripted) clearly know and love the genre terrain, but even more importantly, they recognize the natural affinity offered by horror movies to kids who don’t fit in, which is the best way to describe the film’s titular hero, 11-year-old Norman Babcock (Kodi Smit-McPhee), who we first meet gleefully bathed in the light of the aforementioned trashy horror movie. To say that Norman is a bit obsessed with horror movies would be an understatement, but he has a great excuse: He can see ghosts, a feat of paranormal communication that is more burden than gift, although it does allow him to stay in contact with his beloved Grandma (Elaine Stritch), who sits on the sofa knitting and bemoaning the lack of logic in her grandson’s favorite genre (“If only they would sit down and talk it out,” she says).
Norman’s insistence that he sees dead people alienates him from both his family and his peers, both of whom think he’s “weird” and a “freak.” It’s no wonder, then, that he’s so morose, walking the halls at school with slumped shoulders and downcast eyes; at home, he frequently disappears at home into his room with its cornucopia of zombie posters and horrific knick-knacks (his alarm clock is a grave with a zombie arm breaking through the ground, the walls are papered with skull and bones, and even his slippers are zombie faces). While his mother (Leslie Mann) tries to be understanding, his gruff father (Jeff Garlin) grumbles quite loudly about his son’s morbid preoccupations and Courtney, his self-absorbed older sister (Anna Kendrick), disparages him for crimping her social life and generally being in the way. At school, Norman is the target of big-bodied, dim-witted bully Alvin (Christopher Mintz-Plasse), and his only friend is Neil (Tucker Albrizzi), who is also the victim of bullying due to his weight (and his allergies, and his irritable bowel syndrome, and his …) but is too exuberant about life to let it get him down. Rather than seeing Norman as a freak for claiming to see ghosts, Neil immediately asks if he might be able to see his recently run-over dog who is buried in the backyard. Of course, Norman can see the dog, although he is decent enough not to tell Neil that he is running around in two pieces in the afterlife.
That kind of dark, but poignant humor is laced throughout ParaNorman, which is replete with gorgeously designed and often deranged visuals that will work best with horror-movie aficionados, although it will certainly tickle the funny bones of kids, who are by their nature still in a position to laugh unashamedly at all things gross, scary, and weird. They will also likely recognize some bit of themselves in Norman, who is a genuinely sweet kid who has been forced into loner status and clings to it as his only defense against a world that seems lined up against him; he’s so used to being pushed around and made fun of that he keeps a bottle of spray cleaner in his locker to wipe off the mean things Alvin writes on his locker door. Thus, the friendship between Norman and Neil transcends its obviously formulaic buddy nature due to the fact that Neil, who is blessedly unpretentious and self-aware, literally wills himself into Norman’s space. He’s the only kid who could break through.
The plot concerns Norman’s quest, bequeathed to him by his grizzled old uncle (John Goodman) who could also see ghosts and was likewise shunned, to save his small town of Blithe Hollow from a centuries-old witch’s curse. This endeavor eventually involves not only Neil, but also Alvin, Courtney, and Mitch (Casey Affleck), Neil’s muscle-bound, genially dim older brother. Norman’s town celebrates its heritage as a place where witches were tried and burned, and the filmmakers get surprising mileage out of the visual gags involved in the town’s commercializing its heinous past—from the strip of stores that all play off the word “witch,” to the giant witch statue in the middle of the town square, to the historically inaccurate school play about witch trials overseen by the zealously dramatic Mrs. Henscher (Alex Borstein).
Part of the witch’s curse involves raising the town founders as zombies, which allows the filmmakers to both engage and humorously subvert the horrors of the living dead, which they do with ample glee. They also have a few surprises up their sleeves, especially when it comes to the question of monsters and what makes them monstrous. Unfortunately, the film winds its way into a hyperkinetic third act whose powerful moral charge about empathy and resisting the urge to reply to hurt with more hurt is almost drowned out by the overwhelming visual pyrotechnics. It’s a shame because Butler (who is making his directorial debut) and Fell (who is a veteran of both stop-motion and CGI films) maintain an otherwise even keel throughout the film, balancing visual wit and genre reification with genuine pathos and generous humor. Outsiders of all stripes will feel right at home in its wonderfully bizarro world.
Copyright ©2012 James Kendrick
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