Gut Reaction: Paranorman (2012)
Directors: Chris Butler & Sam Fell
Writer: Chris Butler
Cast: Kodi Smit-McPhee, Tucker Albrizzi, Anna Kendrick, Casey Affleck, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Leslie Mann, Jeff Garlin, Elaine Stritch, Bernard Hill, Tempest Bledsoe, Alex Borstein, John Goodman, Hannah Noyes, Jodelle Ferland
Plot: Norman Babcock (Kodi Smit-McPhee) was born with a terrible gift – the ability to see and communicate with ghosts. The problem is, nobody believes him, except for his mysterious Uncle Prendergast (John Goodman), who has the same power. Prendergast warns Norman that a witch’s curse is about to overwhelm his small town unless he can stop it… but the spirits of the undead may not even be the worst danger – first Norman has to navigate a sea of school bullies, unbelieving townspeople, and parents who think something is wrong with him.
As always, this Reel to Reel is not simply a review, but a study of the themes and tropes of the movie. So fair warning: SPOILERS LIE AHEAD.
Thoughts: Last fall we got hit by not one, but three stop-motion films that seemed to be grasping for the young Halloween-lover’s moviegoing dollars: this, Hotel Transylvania and Frankenweenie. I wanted to see all three, so naturally, circumstances conspired to keep me from seeing any of them. Now that they’re rolling out on DVD, I’m making up for lost time.
From the basic description, it’s impossible not to see Paranorman as taking some of its lead from The Sixth Sense – both films are about young boys with the ability to talk to the dead and the earlier film is far too large a cultural milestone to imagine writer Chris Butler could have been unaware of it. It’s even less likely when you realize just how culturally aware this movie is – it’s full of tiny little jokes, tidbits and Easter Eggs that link us to the great horror movies of the past — gags about zombie movies, Norman’s friend Neil showing up in a hockey mask, and Norman’s phone having John Carpenter’s Halloween theme as his ringtone being some of the most prominent examples.
That said, this isn’t a problem for the movie at all. In fact, you could almost look at Paranorman as a sort of thematic sequel to M. Night Shyamalan’s breakthrough film. At the end of that movie, Haley Joel Osment’s Cole Sear character had started to make peace with his ability to talk to the dead and was attempting to use his ability to help spirits in need. Norman Babcock is at that point when this movie begins, but an unbelieving family and the fact that the town is aware of – but doesn’t believe in – his power helps make him a real outcast, perfectly positioning him to be the hero when the zombies hit the fan.
Chris Butler and Sam Fell are clearly drawing from the Tim Burton/Henry Sellick school of filmmaking. Although parents frequently forget, a lot of kids love the creepy and the macabre. It’s why Roald Dahl is still popular, why the Universal Monsters will never die, and why The Nightmare Before Christmas is still the most popular thing Tim Burton’s name has ever been associated with. Kids, however, don’t really want to be legitimately scared the way adults sometimes do. Kids want the trappings of horror around them, because it makes them feel older, like they can take it. Plus, that line between terror and laughter is really very slim. (I may have mentioned it before.)
The interesting thing about Paranorman is that it treads the line between an all-ages movie and an adult film very carefully, but not only in terms of the horror content. When Mitch (Casey Affleck) drop-kicks a zombie’s head, that’s a little gross… but part of my brain was still processing the moment a few minutes before when he was joking about his little brother Neil (Tucker Albrizzi) freeze-framing their mother’s aerobics DVDs, with a screenshot that leaves no room for interpretation as to what he’s looking for.
Like the horror, the comedy in this movie draws heavily from classic sources. Zombie hands chasing after people feel like they could have been dragged out of a Three Stooges short or an episode of The Addams Family. The mob violence calls to mind Frankenstein in the campier moments of the franchise, and the script even drops in a shout-out to Scooby-Doo. The action, on the other hand, evokes some of the great kids’ adventures movies of the 80s. We used to get movies like Explorers, like Monster Squad, like the greatest kids’ adventure of all time, Goonies, in which the young have to come together to fight the bad guy or save the day. I grew up in this mythical fairyland – it was called the 80s. Halfway through the movie, Paranorman takes a turn in this direction, when Norman and Neil are joined by their older siblings and the school bully, none of whom can afford to remain skeptical anymore, what with the actual hordes of the undead coming after them.
The way those characters come together, though, is pretty realistic. Norman’s sister Courtney (Anna Kendrick) turns against him, even after they’ve all fought the monsters and know for a fact he isn’t just crazy. Alvin the Bully (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) is still a jerk. Neil’s brother Mitch (Casey Affleck) is still a bonehead. In a lot of movies, these lesser antagonistic characters turn on a dime and join the heroes in the face of a greater threat (such as in the legendary Shakespearean drama Ernest Goes to Camp.) Things don’t go nearly so well for Norman, who really has only one stalwart in his corner, and when the story begins, it’s Norman who tries to reject Neil. The characters do come around eventually, of course, because that’s the sort of story this is, but it doesn’t come easily. They need real convincing, an idea that becomes more important at the climax when Norman confronts the witch and tries to talk her down from the monster she’s become to the little girl she once was.
The big moment for the film, the one where we really start to understand we’re in a complex world where nothing is black and white, is when Norman gets a pensieve-style glimpse into the sentencing of the witch Agatha Prendergast (Jodelle Ferland), who started all this in the first place when she cursed the people who condemned her. At this point, after an hour of running from the monsters, everything becomes clear. Agatha was a child when she was condemned – we’re not seeing a spell cast by a bloodthirsty witch, we’re seeing a tantrum being thrown by a scared, powerful child. Then the next domino falls – the zombies beg Norman to complete the ritual to put Agatha asleep again for another year… they aren’t out for blood, they just want the curse to end.
In truth, it takes a bullied, misunderstood child to comprehend what a bullied misunderstood child actually needs, and that’s as true in this movie as it is in real life.
Although rated PG, I would be hesitant to show this movie to some kids. The mass numbers of double entendre aside, a lot of the monsters and violence – although played for laughs – are perhaps a little too realistic for the littlest of them. If you’ve got a kid under 10, I’d recommend watching the movie yourself first to decide if you think your kid can handle it. If you’re older, though – if you’re from that demographic that loves Nightmare Before Christmas, Beetlejuice, The Munsters, this really is an excellent movie.
Don’t forget the first Reel to Reel movie study, Mutants, Monsters and Madmen, is now available as a $2.99 eBook in the Amazon Kindle store and Smashwords.com bookstore. And you can find links to all of my novels, collections, and short stories, in their assorted print, eBook and audio forms, at the Now Available page!