From the very first moments, you can tell ParaNorman is unlike any other kid’s animated film you’ll see. A `70s drive-in style “Feature Presentation” title card – complete with that swirling psychedelic color background and chintz-funk score – opens the film and segues into a parody of a grindhouse schlock B-monster movie: the smeary, low rent camera work; the half-eaten brains tossed casually on the floor; the slavering zombie creakily chasing a big-lunged scream queen nobody. There’s even a boom mike that creeps stealthily into frame. It’s a movie being watched by Norman Babcock (voiced by Kodi Smit-McPhee), an Eraserhead-haired, horror-loving tween outcast in the quaint, witch-obsessed town of Blithe Hollow, Massachusetts. He’s also watching it with his beloved grandmother (Elaine Stritch) – who also happens to be a ghost.
And thus begins ParaNorman, a garishly colored family cartoon Sixth Sense that plays like a horror flick with training wheels. As with Haley Joel Osment in that film, Norman has the ability to see and communicate with the dead; unlike Osment, our hero is hardly freaked out by that. In fact, he’s more comfortable with the sickly green ectoplasmic specters he encounters from day-to-day then he is with the living in his life. At school, he’s labeled a freak and picked on, most notably by Alvin (Christopher Mintz-Plasse), a dimwit thug who tries to impress girls with his thuddingly graceless breakdance moves. At home, Norman is chewed out by his father (Jeff Garlin), who doesn’t understand his son’s obsession with the macabre, and shrieked at by his shrill, vapid, teen-queen sister (Anna Kendrick). His only friend is Neil, a roly-poly kid who cheerfully lets insults about his weight roll off his back and is scene-stealingly voiced by upbeat sincerity by newcomer Tucker Albrizi.
On the town’s 300th anniversary – in which they celebrate a famed witch’s curse by staging a school play of the event (complete with a sing along to Donovan’s creepy hit “Season of the Witch”) – Norman is cornered by his black sheep uncle Prenderghast (John Goodman), a bum who can also see the dead. Prenderghast warns Norman he has to read from a book at the witches grave in order to appease her spirit and allow the curse to bloom. Needless to say, Norman fails and a zombie plague is unleashed upon Blithe Hollow, with only the outcast (accompanied by a motley assortment of fellow kids) to save the day.
A love of horror movies infuses every frame of ParaNorman, an odd-but-mostly-successful mix of scary movie tropes and family animation. The quirky but beautiful stop motion animation – nestled in an autumnal New England town clearly meant to reference Salem – is lit in a gorgeous, lurid palette of purples and greens that would make Bava and Argento proud. Jon Brion’s old school synth score is a throwback to both the taut compositions of John Carpenter and the more florid works that bands like Goblin supplied to the Italian horrors of yesteryear. The film is dotted by various references – Norman’s ringtone is the Halloween theme and a bar is named Bar Gento (and there’s a minor character styled to look like the famed Suspiria helmer.) It’s clear that directors Chris Butler (a newcomer) and Sam Fell (Flushed Away and The Tales of Desperaux) have a deep affection for the genre, and ParaNorman works as warm love letter to the genre – and what it means to grow up as young fan of it.
The character of Norman will strike a chord in the heart of every person who grew up as a monster kid (or hell, any kind of geek), with his bedroom decorated by zombie paraphernalia and his look of joy when planted in front of the monster movies on TV. With its zombie attacks (gore-less as they are, and should be in this regard), occasional language and sometimes rude humor, ParaNorman refuses to pander to its target audience, treating them with a sense of respect and maturity. Much of the humor is gleaned from the characters, and from the town’s sometimes-unexpected interactions with the zombies.
On the downside, the film could have been funnier, the story less wispy, and the supporting characters more sharply drawn, rather than the kind of one-note caricatures they are. That said, the voice cast does well, the movie gets its requisite lessons (about respecting others’ differences and the dangers of mob mentality and unfounded fears of others) cleanly across, and the final act is, hands down, a stunningly beautiful work of art (and heart) that will eclipse most other animated films for years to come.
ParaNorman joins a shortlist of films, including The Monster Squad and The Nightmare Before Christmas, that function as perfect gateway to the genre for kids. In an era full of Ice Age and Madagascar sequels, intended to do little more than sell merchandise, ParaNorman is a film for an entire family of creature-loving, macabre-minded weirdos and outcasts to enjoy.