ParaNorman co-directors Chris Butler and Sam Fell may have a lot more on their metaphorical plate than just mining realism and familiarity from fantasy. And perhaps even more so, the typical cinematic challenge of rendering an animated movie pleasingly digestible for kids and adult audiences alike.
Borrowing a bit from the spooky pandemonium put forth by M. Night Shyamalan’s classic horror sensation, The Sixth Sense, this 3D stop motion comedic chiller is also faced with the formidable task at hand of crafting scary moves that are likewise silly enough, so as to summon delight rather than dread in the tender and vulnerable young minds in the theaters. And well it does, as its eleven year old persecuted protagonist Norman Babcock survives the dual ordeal of warding off both bullies and ghosts. In other words, I see dead cartoon characters.
Norman (Kodi Smit-McPhee) is a young schoolboy and kid pariah sulking away his days in the quite murky Massachusetts hamlet of Blithe Hollow. Tormented at school by Alvin (Christopher Mintz-Plasse), a bully who can’t seem to spell, and berated at home by his cranky parents (Leslie Mann, Jeff Garlin) and shallow mean girl teenage sister Courtney (Anna Kendrick), Norman spends his time, much to his family’s annoyance, hanging on the living room couch with Grandma. Who happens to be quite dead and invisible to everyone else, even if she nags about the heat not being turned up enough. While refusing as well to make her way to the afterlife, because there’s no cable television there.
And in a multiplicity of plot threads which may sound overloaded but actually aren’t, as the surreal goes down nicely with a chaser of creepy current events playing out on this small town turf, the horrors of buried local history are reawakened too. And that have a lot to do with who may or may not have been declared witches during those trials back in the 17th century, and why. And what it may all have to do with schoolyard bullies in the here and now. Whew.
Not to worry, when it comes to the kid friendly meter. Those hordes of zombies on the loose evoke less gothic horror than humor, and primarily giggle-inciting ghoulish nonsense. Which unfortunately at various points in time, also tends to have them lose a bit too much of their taunting edge, and seriously overstay their welcome.
But what makes ParaNorman ultimately such an emphatic delight, is the genuine emotional core at the heart of its glum young outsider’s perspective on life – or the undead – around him. Especially when it comes to just how otherworldly adults can seem in a solidly cartoonish universe – from a child’s vantage point from the ground up – and all those freaky magnified bulging bellies and backsides surrounding him.