ParaNorman (2012) – Directed by Sam Fell and Chris Butler – Starring Kodi Smit-McPhee, Tucker Albrizzi, Anna Kendrick, Casey Affleck, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Leslie Mann, Jeff Garlin, Elaine Stritch, Bernard Hill, Jodelle Micah Ferland, John Goodman, and Tempestt Bledsoe.
PARANORMAN is a ridiculously dumb title, but that’s the only thing this movie does poorly.
PARANORMAN is a very good stop-motion movie about two kids, separated by three centuries, who are demonized and ostracized by their community because they can talk to the dead. I love it when kids’ movies are smart, and PARANORMAN is a cleverly constructed tale that starts rather predictable but gains momentum as it barrels towards its highly effective conclusion.
At the center of PARANORMAN sits Norman Babcock (Kodi Smit-McPhee), a kid who’s being ostracized by his town for being weird. Norman can see and talk to the dead, but the town doesn’t believe him, and thus mocks him for what they perceive as his strangeness. If it were just the kids in town, PARANORMAN would be following in the steps of numerous kids’ stories where our protagonist lives just outside of the normal path, but there’s a particular viciousness laid into Norman by his father (Jeff Garlin) that really sets this movie apart. Perry is all over Norman for being weird, and he delivers the most stinging attacks on Norman’s character. Kids are resilient, but when the harshest and most consistent abuse comes not from the school bully but your own father, it’s not hard to see why Norman spends much of the movie’s opening sequences with his head down. It’s a common theme in stories like this for the parent to not understand their child, but Perry is much closer to someone like Harry Potter’s Uncle Vernon than simply a parent who thinks he knows what’s best for his kid.
At school, Norman gets FREAK painted onto his locker, and is the main target of the school’s bully, Alvin (Christopher Mintz-Plasse). When we’re introduced to Alivn, I was not feeling PARANORMAN. It’s early in the film and while I like the twist of Norman’s opening scene revealing that his grandmother is actually dead despite her sitting and watching TV with him, Alvin is rendered as a cartoonish bully. The physical appearances of these characters was a bit of a concern – we have the fat dad, who’s a bully at home, and the fat older kid, who’s a bully at school. I get nervous when films fall into the “good guys are attractive, bad guys are ugly” bit, and luckily, PARANORMAN doesn’t fall into that trap. Part of the film’s charm is that it renders its characters as exaggerated physical types, but then lets the characters overcome that type. Alvin, for instance, goes from bullying Norman to partnering with him when the dead start coming back to life.
The return of dead corpses back into the realm of the living is surprisingly gruesome and, for a kids’ movie, surprisingly scary. Clearly, the filmmakers of PARANORMAN like scary movies, and not just because they dot the film with allusions to John Carpenter’s Halloween and Sean Cunningham’s Friday the 13th. I really think the filmmakers have set out to actually scare kids; PARANORMAN doesn’t just wink at horror movies – it is a horror movie. Scenes where the dead claw their way out of their graves, where the zombies attack Norman and his associates, and where reality is consumed inside powerful visions of the town’s past are actually pretty intense and much more forceful than I was expecting in a kids’ film.
I absolutely love how PARANORMAN uses history to set the foundation for the present. Blithe Hollow, Massachusetts is clearly an analog for Salem, the home of the most infamous American witchcraft trials, but the look of the town owes a great deal to Stephen King’s Maine or Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter. In the pure tradition of King and Hawthorne, Blithe Hollow is a town that looks quaint but hides a terrible secret. There are images of witches all over Blithe Hollow, but the images are largely of the wicked witch variety – big noses, green skin, cackling smiles. The town’s identity is built around the town elders catching and killing this witch 300 years previous, but when Norman gets to the truth of the matter through his visions, he learns that the “wicked witch” of yore is actually a scared girl roughly the same age as him.
It’s admirable that PARANORMAN has this reveal, because the way these “non-normative” stories usually go is that our protagonist is picked on, but over the course of the film overcomes the abuse to prove everyone wrong. Certainly, PARANORMAN offers this narrative through Norman’s arc, but with the little girl witch, Aggie (Jodelle Micah Ferland), the filmmakers show the dark side of that story arc, of what can happen if the protagonist can’t overcome the abuse – she gets unfairly singled out and murdered.
It’s interesting and telling about what the filmmakers want you to take from this story that Norman spends more time during this movie adventuring with Alvin than Neil (Tucker Albrizzi), the only kid at school that wants to befriend Norman. Neil gets picked on, too, by Alvin and his buddies, but he has a rosier outlook than Norman does about life. Norman, in fact, rejects Neil’s friendship advances several times before finally welcoming him in. The rest of the adventure crew contains Norman’s sister Courtney (Anna Kendrick) and Neil’s brother Mitch (Casey Affleck). Both Courtney and Mitch are physically attractive people, and Courtney spends much of her time flirting with a non-responsive Mitch. The jock is a bit low on the IQ scale, so the film could be suggesting that Mitch simply doesn’t realize what Courtney is doing, but then at the end of the movie, he tells her that he has a boyfriend. Non-normative characters are often coded in such a way to allow non-normative kids to identify with them, but this is the first time I can remember a kid in an animated movie being explicitly gay.
What really puts PARANORMAN over the top is the final showdown between Norman and Aggie. Norman doesn’t defeat her through a physical battle but by telling her the story of herself and allowing her to let go of her hate and anger and rediscover happiness. The animation through this sequence is top notch and the interplay between the two kids who can talk to the dead is outstanding. Norman clearly sees himself in Aggie, and when he learns the truth about her through a vision, he becomes her champion as much as her opponent.
PARANORMAN only did so-so at the box office ($60 million budget, $99 worldwide haul) and it’s easy to point the finger at bad marketing when a good film under-performs. This is a tricky movie to sell, though, because the things that make it great aren’t things you can put in an advertisement. PARANORMAN isn’t at its best in singular moments that can be cut out of the film and assembled together to make an effective 30-second TV spot; it’s at its best when it gets beyond the obvious and starts to open up its world and its characters to reveal that people (even dead people) are far more than their appearance.
SAFH is a kid’s espionage novella, but it’s also a tribute to the television shows I watched as a kid: The A-Team, Magnum PI, Knight Rider, Hardcastle and McCormack, Riptide, Dukes of Hazzard and generally any show where Post and Carpenter did the music. Recommended age? If you let your kid watch superhero cartoons or Knight Rider reruns, SAFH should be age appropriate.
Here’s the back cover description:
Jurgen the Gorilla. Throne the Lion. Bronze the Golden Eagle. Ray the Brown Bear. Bottle the Dolphin. Dev the Lynxwoman. 3 the Triceratops. Ptera the Pterodactyl. These eight stuffed animals make up the Return Squadron. For seven months they have worked together to return disconnected stuffed animals home. But now … on their final mission, the Return Squadron seek to steal the legendary Map of Everything. Before Christmas morning arrives, three of the Squadron will turn traitor, four will be stranded, and one will never see another Christmas.