Fans of horror know that outside of Tim Burton, there’s a criminal shortage of spook show animation for those who get their jollies from the grotesque. With a market cornered by talented people with equally memorable films, the bar is set awfully high for anyone who wishes to throw their hat in the ring. Along comes Chris Butler with this strange little paranormal fairy tale ParaNorman, which is not only the coolest creature feature since Coraline, but the best scary movie you’ll find this year (at least until Frankenweenie).
Young Norman Babcock lives in the town of Blithe Hollow, where he spends his days zoning out in front of the TV watching zombie movies with his grandma. Oh, did I mention that she’s dead? You see, Norman can speak to the dead, but no one believes him, and in school he’s tormented relentlessly by bullies who call him freak and “Abnorman.” He lives a lonely existence where his only friends are the undead, until he meets a charming young boy named Neil who takes a liking to Norman and believes his strange powers are real. Neil provides a much needed comic relief backdrop to the sometimes unrelenting terror, which never gets better than a poignant scene about bullying where Neil tells Norman not to let it bother him, because “if you were bigger and more stupid, you’d probably be a bully too.”
Norman’s crazy uncle Mr. Prenderghast (voiced brilliantly by John Goodman) is the only person that can also see the dead, and he explains to Norman that a curse cast by a witch centuries ago threatens to overtake the town unless he can perform an annual ritual at her grave site. Things go wrong, the curse is unleashed, and Norman uncovers a gruesome town secret that’s been hidden away from the town for years. This quest to reverse the curse is the meat of the story and easily the most enjoyable.
Writer/Director Chris Butler, who earned his stripes on Coraline and Corpse Bride, does an excellent job on the stop-motion animation and the 3D pops in all the right places. The way the characters interact with their environment, the imaginative paranormal sequences, zombies, witches, the color palette, and overall aesthetics is where ParaNorman really shines. The level of detail in some scenes is simply astounding and there are enough homages and allusions to past films from the horror genre that even the most casual fans will crack a smile at the clever tributes.
A quick word of caution to parents: this movie may not go over so well with the notably younger crowd. I’d say about 10 and under is the median, and you should consider the tolerance your child has to being frightened, because although it’s aimed at children, ParaNorman is not afraid to push the PG boundary with its scares. There’s not a drop of blood to be found, but there are moments that would outright terrify the timid. Put it this way, if you aren’t comfortable taking your child through a haunted house, don’t bring them to ParaNorman.
There’s also another bit of controversy surrounding ParaNorman, namely the fact that a character is gay, and some parents have complained that it shouldn’t have been presented in a kids film. Some have even gone as far as expressing outrage and demanding a refund because of it. I have to honestly ask if people are serious when they voice this complaint? Do they know how offensive it is to make such a claim? There are people in the world who are gay. They are no better or worse than any other person, and should be treated as such. I’m annoyed that someone would even mention this as an issue. This intolerance to gays is one of the few forms of discrimination that people still tolerate and sweep under the rug.
Why? In any other scenario rational people would be shaking their heads in disgust at this fanatical dogmatism. Can you imagine if someone said “well, there was a black character, and I don’t think they should be allowed in a movie directed at children.” How about this one? “I was having a great time with my kids until one of the characters was revealed to be a Jew, and I was appalled.” There would be activist groups shocked at the complete lack of sensitivity, but somehow this bigotry against gays is viewed as a valid and understandable viewpoint. Gays shouldn’t be allowed in a kids movie? What a terrible thing to be teaching children. If you leave this film “upset” because a character happened to be gay, then it isn’t the filmmakers that have committed an inexcusable offense against your children, it’s you.
With that said, there’s a lot of heart in ParaNorman, and the endearing moments balance out the ghoulish thrills for an ultimately rewarding experience. Themes of forgiveness, tolerance for those who are different, and an understanding of the importance of family and how everyone in society is connected by the actions of others in some way are all touched upon in admirable ways. With roots deeply embedded in macabre folklore and a mythical tale that would make Poe proud, ParaNorman is every bit as entertaining as Coraline and one of the best animated films of the year. If you’re at all interested in the horror genre, you owe it to yourself to give it a look.