Rating: PG (Scary action and images, thematic elements, some rude humor and language)
Length: 93 minutes
Release Date: August 17, 2012
Directed by: Chris Butler, Sam Fell
Stars: 4 out of 5
On the surface, “ParaNorman” may seem like an animated version of “The Sixth Sense,” in which a young Haley Joel Osment helps Bruce Willis come to terms with the fact that he is a ghost. Thankfully, “ParaNorman” manages to take the idea of a protagonist who sees ghosts and turn it into a film that is equal parts dramatic, scary, funny and heartwarming.
The film begins with Norman (voiced by Kodi Smit-McPhee) sitting down with his grandmother (Elaine Stritch) to watch a zombie movie. What makes this unusual is that his grandmother has been dead for quite some time. He thinks nothing of the fact that she is present and watching with him, which is why he is a complete outcast in school. The loneliness he feels as his peers shun him is fairly palpable, which is unusual for an animated children’s film. Sure, there are plenty of outcasts in these types of movies, but the social segregation is usually somewhat glossed over. Here, it is presented front and center, with the equally shunned Neil (Tucker Albrizzi) being Norman’s only friend outside of his family.
Norman lives in the sleepy New England town of Blithe Hollow, which has a rich history of supernatural and paranormal activity. From witch-hunting to haunted houses, this little town has it all, and Norman sees it all. One of the most infamous stories is that of a 300-year-old witch who wishes to curse the town where she died. She sends a zombie invasion to take over the town and eliminate all who live there. Norman’s Uncle Prenderghast (John Goodman) passes this bit of information onto the child, who is now burdened with deciding what to do about it.
Norman tries to get the adults of Blithe Hollow to prepare for the coming zombie apocalypse. Since most of the town already thinks he is a freak, they don’t take him seriously. The fact that the original bearer of the bad news, Uncle Prenderghast, is not only dead but was a bit of a kook when alive doesn’t help the situation. The only one who believes him is Neil, who listens intently and tries to help Norman devise a plan when he isn’t in the bathroom tending to his irritable bowel syndrome.
As the entire town prepares to celebrate the anniversary of the curse, not knowing it is actually real, Norman must decide what to do. He can skip town and leave everyone to fend off the zombies, or he can be brave and fight. Here, a normal animated movie might morph into a morality tale and preach about doing the right thing. “ParaNorman” stays away from preachy territory with a strong script by Chris Butler, who codirected the film with Sam Fell.
The film comes from Laika, the studio behind “The Corpse Bride” and “Coraline.” It keeps with the darker themes of its previous two movies and even has the same lauded stop-motion animation as well. That is where the similarities end, though. “ParaNorman” stands apart from its predecessors as a true coming-of-age film that still manages to get in a few genuine frights and laughs.
Another refreshing thing about the film is that it treats children, the target audience, with dignity and respect. Here, Norman and Neil are intelligent, thoughtful and brave, whereas they could have easily been written with broader strokes. The character development by Butler is fairly amazing, considering the running time is only 93 minutes. It is also nice that Norman is voiced by an actual child actor instead of an adult acting the part of a child, as has happened in several animated films.
Laika may not be quite where Pixar is yet in the animation department, but it is getting there very quickly. Not only does the animation look fantastic, but the writing is top-notch, on par with the some of Pixar’s best, like “Toy Story” and “Monsters, Inc.” Movie fans will be well-served if the studio continues to aim for Pixar’s greatness.
Adult movie fans should also look out for some cheeky references to horror movies like “Halloween” and Sam Raimi films. The fact that these are mixed in makes “ParaNorman” a great film for both adults and children alike. There won’t be any shame if adults see this animated movie without a child. Instead, there will be laughs, chills and maybe a life lesson or two about being different.