The best thing about “ParaNorman” (directed by first timers Chris Butler and Sam Fell) is that it’s the first animated film I’ve seen in years that’s creepy and slightly disturbing, as opposed to just being goofy, touching and full of delight. Now, I have no problems with delightful and goofy animated films (if they’re well made, that is), that’s what animation is all about. And I’m also not saying that “ParaNorman” is one hundred percent serious and dark. There’s plenty of goofy humor, emotionally touching moments and it ends on a happy note.
But at the same time there is a legitimate sense of danger and tension lurking throughout the movie and there are a number of scenes that are fairly eerie and ominous. It also helps that the animation is stop motion; it gives the movie a more realistic (in an artistic way rather than a literal way) look, emphasizing that creepiness, as well as giving the entire picture an old-school horror movie look. In fact the animation on a whole is absolutely stunning and seeing it for a second time you can really appreciate all of the detail that the animators have put into it. Everything from the fat folds on a person’s face, to a lone scrape of newspaper floating in the wind.
I can only think of two other previous movies, “Coraline” (which was made by the same studio as “ParaNorman”) and “Monster House,” that also had an element of terror and I’m not sure why it isn’t done more often. Fear is a major part of childhood and growing up, plus it makes the film more appealing to non-children.
“ParaNorman” centers around a boy named Norman (Kodi Smit-McPhee) who can see and talk to dead people. That in and of itself is a disturbing ability to possess. It can work in his favor and against it. Good because he can talk and consult with benevolent ghosts, like his grandmother, but bad because he can also encounter not so kind ghosts and can also have terrifying and rather traumatic visions, like something you’d see in a horror movie. On top of that his ability doesn’t exactly make him the most popular kid at school. In fact he’s harassed daily by a local bully, and most everyone else (including his parents) don’t really understand him.
To make matters even worse danger is coming, in the form of zombies. You see, the town where Norman lives, called Blithe Hollow, has an ugly secret. Back in the 1800’s the town’s people killed a supposed witch (which is fairly adult for a children’s animated film) and the town has been cursed ever since. Norman is first warned of this trouble when he has a couple of those terrifying and trippy visions and then he’s further reminded by his weirdo dead uncle, who possessed the same ability he had and was responsible for keeping the curse at bay for the year. Of course it’s up to Norman to try and stop the curse before it destroys the town. What a stressful and scary task for such a young boy to uphold.
Though, as I said before “ParaNorman” isn’t all creepy and disturbing. There’s a fair amount of silly humor, humor that doesn’t try too hard I might add, there’s also a surprising amount of emotion and the movie tackles some pretty mature subjects, such as scapegoating, mass paranoia and stupidity and, in relation to the whole witch angle, keeping history from repeating itself. The whole picture flows smoothly for the most part and it’s always nice to have a break from computer animation. “ParaNorman” does run into a few snags towards the home stretch, when Norman has to confront a crazy and panicked mob of townspeople to give the old “the zombies aren’t actually the bad guys” speech.
But then it gets right back on track in its intense and touching finale where Norman has to confront the “witch.” This is mainly where the sense of danger comes in. Rarely do I ever feel like a character in a cartoon is in peril, but during this sequence I did feel like Norman was at risk and thought that maybe the worst would happen to him. My eyes were glued to the screen the entire time. It’s one of the single best most thrilling moments I’ve seen in any animated movie all year.
I remarked in my “Ice Age: The Meltdown” review that I haven’t been impressed with the crop of American animated movies this year. And at this point it’s safe to say that we’ve been mostly upstaged by other countries. Studio Ghibli’s “The Secret World of Arrietty”, Aardman’s “The Pirates: Band of Misfits” and “A Cat in Paris,” the delightful little gem from France have all been far superior to the majority of American animated films released so far.
“ParaNorman” rises to the glorious heights of those foreign exports and is easily the best American animated movie of the year so far. It’s funny, intelligent, touching and also a little frightening. Something that’s refreshing to see in a genre that’s mainly reserved for cuteness and joy.