Animation is too often thought of as a children’s medium, which is an unfair classification. While it does tend to skew towards them, adults can be just as thrilled, delighted, scared and amused as any young kid. This week’s ParaNorman is evidence of that and it hits all of those emotions many times. This is the first film since 2009’s underrated gem 9 that feels more mature and more alive than most other conventional animated films. Despite its PG rating, it takes many risks in its sometimes unnerving tone, frightening visuals and boundary pushing jokes (let’s just say some parents won’t be pleased by a late movie character reveal) and it’s absolutely wonderful. This is not animation for kids. This is animation for everyone.
The film follows Norman (Kodi Smit-McPhee), a young boy who has a special gift: he can see and talk to the dead. The people of Blithe Hollow think he’s a freak, as they watch him walk down the street seemingly talking to the air. What they don’t realize is that the afterlife is indeed a real thing and Norman gets to watch as people journey through it. Perhaps appropriately, he’s a horror fan and stays up most nights watching scary movies on television. The walls of his rooms are lined with zombie posters, his slippers are zombie heads and his alarm clock is a tombstone with an arm sticking out of it and a big “RIP” on the front. Naturally, his odd behavior hasn’t landed him many friends, but he soon learns he’s more important than even he realized. His crazy uncle, whom he was told not to talk to and who happens to share Norman’s powers, suddenly dies. His spirit tells Norman that he must now keep an evil witch at bay. It’s approaching the 300 year anniversary since her death and he must read a book at her resting place before sundown or the dead will spring to life. Unfortunately, Norman is unsuccessful, so he’s forced to set out and correct his blunder.
ParaNorman feels like something “The Simpsons” writers would make if they went a bit darker and tried to tackle horror. It’s fearless, imaginative and incredibly clever. It has plenty of throwaway gags that are surprisingly effective if you catch them, including one billboard gag exclaiming that the local school would be hosting the “Spelling Bee next Wensday.” It’s moments like these that highlight how the filmmakers left no stone unturned. They packed as much as they could into a short 93 minute runtime and somehow pulled it off seamlessly. Gags like that are usually followed by a dramatic or scary scene, but the tone never falters. It never feels inconsistent, like they needed to pick one and stick to it. They take everything that’s great about laughing and crying and being scared and throw it together to form a magical piece of entertainment.
The fact that the animation is smooth and pretty should go without saying; it’s the film’s smarts that surprise the most. It references and spoofs a number of other horror movies, including Halloween, Friday the 13th and those classic Hammer horror films. The opening, in particular, is wonderfully reminiscent of a horror film double feature many would find playing at their local theaters back in the 70’s. It’s a love letter to the genre itself and the unique experience that genre delivers, and it continues this admiration throughout. It creates a voice of its own with a downright wonderful story that concludes in an incredible fashion that manages to be terrifying, sad and beautiful all in one sweep, but it never loses its respect for the genre it obviously endears.
In a strange way, ParaNorman is even a bit profound, finding an odd peace in death, though it’s not quite as involving as this year’s wonderful Studio Ghibli film, The Secret World of Arrietty, where the possibility of life after death was treated less factually, but it nevertheless remains interesting. In the movie, the characters must face their fears, so it’s only appropriate it doesn’t shy away from the reality of death, everyone’s biggest fear. By the time the end rolls around and Norman faces an enemy that is far different than what many will expect, the film has taken on a whole new meaning. ParaNorman wears many faces, both thematically and narratively, but they all combine to create something truly special.
ParaNorman receives 4.5/5