The arrival of ParaNorman comes as summer begins to wane and we get ready for fall. And it feels like a fall release in terms of setting and story. Painstakingly detailed in stop-motion, the animated feature is an homage to all the zombie movies that have come before, while also serving as a progressive coming-of-age film. But it’s definitely a release that deserves its PG rating, as its creepy texture and humor are not suited for all general audiences.
The “Norman” in the title is a middle schooler (voiced by Kodi Smit-McPhee) who is an outcast in his household and to his schoolmates. This is on account of his ability to see ghosts. Such ability makes it difficult for him to make friends, the lone exception being Neil (Tucker Albrizzi), the portly kid in school who also suffers similar bullying. Norman’s gift/curse comes in handy when his crazy hermit of an uncle (John Goodman) throws down the gauntlet by exhorting the boy to defend the town of Blithe Hollow from a witch that died 299 years ago (the 300th anniversary is a mere day a way – that doesn’t leave too much time of dillydallying). Taking the challenge, which only requires him to read from a book at the site where the witch is buried, seems like a simple request until failure to do so before a specific time unleashes a zombiepocalypse (okay, just seven Puritan zombies) on the town driving the locals into mass hysteria. Suddenly, Norman the outcast gains an entourage with sister Courtney (Anna Kendrick), Neil, and his disproportional older brother Mitch (Casey Affleck), as he sets forth to right a 300-year-old wrong and fulfill his destiny as the kid who sees dead people (cue: The Sixth Sense).
ParaNorman, developed by Laika, the stop-motion animation studio famous for 2009’s Coraline, continues to take younger viewers into its dark, labyrinth world of junior adventures. Directors Sam Fell and Chris Butler, who probably were weaned on a diet of EC Comics and George Romero zombie flicks, infuse the story with a sense of reverence to the genre but crossing that with a tale of an outsider finding his place in the world. The film has its fare share of references to horror movies, not only related to zombies. With Neil sporting a hockey mask at one point, which is preceded seconds before by a Halloween-themed ring tone, the filmmakers were definitely cognizant about wanting to make a feature for kids who have since navigated away from dinosaurs or wanting to be astronauts to make their bedroom a visual shrine of zombie posters and artwork. As for older viewers not taken to the whole macabre, levity sets in with a smattering of laughs along the way.
Unquestionably, ParaNorman is a strange movie. On the plus side some humor is likely to go over the head of younger audiences, including one joke near the end that may have some parents answering questions pertaining to relationship status. (Spoiler alert: it involves Mitch and Courtney.) On the negative side is its pacing. The climax occurs way too early leading to an extended finale. Also, the jokes, while good, lack a certain flare. Most likely Fell and Butler wanted the humor to be subdued and not come across as forced.
Where the film really shines is in the visual department. The design of the town to the individual characters is truly exceptional. The names of businesses offer quick-or-you’ll-miss-it jokes, as do the names of certain junk foods. One quick scene involves a hillbilly in a race against time; either wait for his vending machine purchase to deposit or have his brains eaten by zombies. Decisions decisions.
Other great visuals is Norman’s 24-hour-a-day bedhead, portly stomachs that extend over belts and waistbands, and Mitch’s muscular physique. Courtney really likes his deltoids, to which he remarks that he’s never taken deltoids in his life. The autumnal setting generates a Halloween atmosphere, and this is sure to be added to the family holiday mix for seasonal entertainment.
ParaNorman takes a turn in its later stages that is a bit of a departure in its revelations. I don’t want to give too much away, but it involves the witch’s wrath and the quick rush to judgment in handling the situation. To think that the story’s climax is built on the death of a young girl convicted of a being a witch is a little unnerving to say the least, but everything is done in good taste and neither parents nor their target audience children should find any fault.
Although unfocused at times, ParaNorman offers strong visuals and voice work (including Christopher Mintz-Plasse as the school bully – yes, “McLovin” is a bully), and plenty of subversive humor that can only be appreciated with repeated viewings. If you are looking for something off the beaten path as far as animation fare goes, check this one out.
Director: Chris Butler, Sam Fell Writer: Chris Butler Notable Cast: Voices of Kodi Smit-McPhee, Tucker Albrizzi, Anna Kendrick, Casey Affleck, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Leslie Mann, Jeff Garlin, Elaine Stritch, Tempestt Bledsoe, Alex Borstein, John Goodman
Travis Leamons is one of the Inside Pulse Originals and currently holds the position of Managing Editor at Inside Pulse Movies. He's told that the position is his until he's dead or if "The Boss" can find somebody better. I expect the best and I give the best. Here's the beer. Here's the entertainment. Now have fun. That's an order!