Norman Babcock (voiced by Kodi Smith-McPhee) is an outsider who can see dead people and prefers the company of his grandmother’s ghost to any of the living inhabitants of the small town he lives in. In an early scene he is shown gloomily stuck between his parents’ stomachs to emphasise the banality of his day-to-day life, in contrast to the world of horror movies he retreats into when given the chance. Many early gags in the stop-motion animation ParaNorman are associated with Norman’s collection of horror paraphernalia, which include a phone with the Halloween (John Carpenter, 1978) theme for its ringtone. When a distant relative gives a reluctant Norman the task of placating a witch who has threatened the town yearly since the 18th century, things go wrong and Norman must face a zombie threat.
It would be easy to assume that a stop-motion family horror/comedy about a misunderstood young boy who is bullied, considered a freak, can see ghosts and loves classic zombie films, was a Tim Burton film. Indeed if you replace the focus on zombies and witchcraft in ParaNorman to reanimation and monsters then on paper you would have a film that seemed very similar to Burton’s stop-motion animation Frankenweenie, also made in 2012. There is even what could possibly be a fleeting tribute to Burton in ParaNorman in the form of a briefly seen missing pet poster for a dog named Vincent. Both films are about misunderstood young boys and the ‘monsters’ they befriend and both films are loving tributes to older horror films, both in style and narrative tips of the hat. Yet despite the narrative and thematic similarities, ParaNorman is a distinct film able to co-exist alongside the equally marvellous Frankenweenie without suffering in comparison.
On the surface ParaNorman is impressive simply because it manages the juggling act of being scary, being funny and remaining accessible for a wide range of ages. Directors Sam Fell and Chris Butler very adeptly raise the stakes of key scenes where the characters are being threatened to then dilute the moment with a fun gag without completely compromising the tension. Allowing the audience to feel the chills, but with the knowledge that nothing truly horrific will happen is a skilful and kind strategy necessary for a film pitched at younger audiences that will still appeal to older audiences. There are even some surprisingly audacious gross-out moments, such as when Norman is trapped under a dead body and the corpse’s tongue flops out onto his face, to generate delighted squeals of disgust. Where Fell and Butler don’t hold back is the emotional intensity that the film unexpectedly crescendos to towards the end. The concluding scenes where Norman realises the true extent of why his town is cursed are remarkably powerful in terms of the striking animation, emotive voice acting and thematic resolution.
The real strength of ParaNorman is how it presents the themes of bullying and misunderstanding. The film goes into considerable depth to explore the links between taunting somebody for being weird to full blown persecution with devastating results. It’s a sophisticated presentation of how victimising behaviour on a small scale is an expression of victimisation on a much larger scale, and how both are symptoms of a fear-based culture. The film also acknowledges how violence from the past continues to manifests in the present when not reconciled adequately. Not that ParaNorman is preaching that there is nothing to be afraid of, in fact it acknowledges that being afraid is natural and frequently useful in order to survive. Instead the film is saying that fear is okay if it doesn’t change who you are or transform into hatred. Hence Norman is the hero while the hysterical townsfolk who attack the zombies with disturbing relish become yet another threat for Norman to navigate. It is no accident that the music used to accompany the zombies is also used to accompany the attacking human lynch mob.
Most impressive is how ParaNorman handles ideas of redemption and understanding. There are very few innocent or blameless characters in the film with most of the human and supernatural characters having blood – literally or metaphorically – on their hands. It’s not simply a case of the wronged versus the wrongdoers as throughout the film victims become aggressors and aggressors become victims. It’s about how characters respond to their torments, and with Norman as the film’s quick-learning moral compass, forgiveness and acknowledging the mistakes of the past without self-justification are the key to ending the cycle of fear and violence. Even the narrative of the film follows this advice, teaming Norman up with an unlikely ensemble of helpers based on how they are initially introduced in the film.
Funny, frightening, exciting and extremely thoughtful about the nature of the conflict at the core of the film, ParaNorman is a standout feature animation and family film from recent years. Not only does it recall some of Tim Burton’s better films, but it also evokes many of the films of the 1980s directed by Joe Dante and/or produced by Steven Spielberg, with lots of pleasing nods to American horror maestros such as George A Romero and John Carpenter. It’s a reminder of how strong films for younger viewers can be, and should always aspire to be.