Nine times out of ten, debating a film’s appropriateness for children is utterly pointless. But in the case of ParaNorman, a 3D stop-motion animated film about ghosts, zombies, and a witch’s curse, I cannot help but wonder what age group the filmmakers had in mind. With its morbid imagery, its broad and occasionally twisted sense of humor, and its handling of dark issues such as bullying, death, and the execution of suspected witches, I’m forced to conclude that it may not be appropriate for anyone under the age of twelve. You, of course, know your children much better than I do. All I’m asking is that you keep what I’m saying in mind as you buy tickets – especially if you decide to shell out the extra cash for a 3D presentation. I should also note that this is the first PG-rated animated film I know of to include a gay joke.
If you don’t have any children and frankly couldn’t care less about the issue of how young is too young, you may find that ParaNorman is wonderful-looking, appropriately scary, and a great deal of fun. For someone like me, it represents a purer kind of horror movie, in which the purpose is to frighten and entertain without resorting to tacky marketing gimmicks like sex, nudity, and relentless gore. It’s also not limited to craft, although that certainly does play a major role; a real story is being told, and it actually sends a message. I grant you that it’s not a particularly original message, but it’s good to hear nonetheless. Specific scenes are lovingly styled after schlocky B-movies, while others feature clever insider references. Any dedicated horror fan will be the first to tell you that the ringtone on the title character’s cell phone is John Carpenter’s “Halloween Theme.”
Taking place in the New England town of Blithe Hollow, where a notorious history of witch trials are now used to attract tourists, we meet eleven-year-old Norman Babcock (voiced by Kodi Smit-McPhee), a zombie movie fanatic cursed with the ability to speak with the dead. He’s surrounded by ghosts, all of which are only visible to him. Because he always appears to be talking to himself, he’s an outcast in his community. At home, he’s berated by his shallow teenage sister (voiced by Anna Kendrick), patronized by his liberal mother (voiced by Leslie Mann), and completely misunderstood by his overly stern father (voiced by Jeff Garlin), who clearly doesn’t believe in ghosts. He has had it up to here with Norman making requests for his grandmother, who has already died. This is true, but her spirit still lives in the house, and she and Norman have regular conversations. Despite being dead, the grandmother (voiced by Elaine Stritch) made a promise that she would always watch over Norman, which is why she hasn’t crossed to the other side.
At school, Norman is already an easy target for a bully named Alvin (voiced by Christopher Mintz-Plasse), a brute and an idiot. Things only get worse when he begins having visions, which invade his reality like rips in the fabric of time. His only friend is Neil (voiced by Tucker Albrizzi), an innocent and portly boy who takes his daily bullying in stride and thinks Norman’s ability is the coolest thing ever. One day, they’re both approached by the other black sheep of Norman’s family: His uncle Prenderghast (voiced by John Goodman), a hulking bum who lives holed up in a dilapidated house in the woods. He soon drops dead, although his spirit visits Norman in the boys’ restroom and explains that his visions are related to a curse put on Blithe Hollow by a witch centuries earlier. This curse will take effect as soon as the sun goes down; the only way it can be stopped is if passages from an old book are read aloud at the witch’s gravesite. Norman’s sixth sense makes him the only person qualified to do this.
Inevitably, something goes wrong, and in due time, seven corpses are awakened from their cemetery slumber. As they lumber around town as groaning, rotted zombies, Norman, Neil, and Alvin team up with Norman’s sister and the object of her affection, Neil’s teenage brother Mitch (voiced by Casey Affleck), a dimwitted jock. Blithe Hollow’s hall of records is the scene of the finale, where an angry mob gathers on the steps with pitchforks and torches. The zombies, meanwhile, are inside and slowly closing in on Norman, who’s close to figuring out the meaning behind the witch’s curse. What it really comes down to is intolerance, ignorance, and the inability to listen to one another in times of fear and confusion. True enough, these themes are far from original, but they certainly add depth and even some sweetness to an otherwise superficial tale of the macabre.
For the most part, the film is in the spirit of fun, walking the fine line between more mature thrills and family entertainment. There are select scenes, however, that push the limits of where a PG-rated movie can and should be allowed to go. The most glaring example is when Norman must pry a book from the lifeless hands of his uncle Prenderghast; as he struggles to free the book, the body is flung around like a ragdoll, and eventually, it falls on top of Norman, causing a huge length of tongue to roll out of the head and slap Norman in the face. Had this been a live action film, this scene would have been disgusting and perhaps even offensive. I believe that many kids will greatly enjoy ParaNorman, but I also believe that some of them will find it frightening. Exercise caution when taking them to the movies this weekend.