Written by: Chris Butler
Directed by: Chris Butler, Sam Fell
Starring: Kodi Smit-McPhee, Anna Kendrick and Christopher Mintz-Plasse
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
It's all fun and games until someone raises the dead.
The contradictory thing about horror is that it hooks so many of us when it should terrify us: at a young age, where we somehow find allure in fear; in time, that allure turns into adoration for the comfort of its familiarity. Horror can be comfort food even when itís centered around zombies chewing on peopleís brains. Norman Babock, the title character in ParaNorman, is one of ďusĒ--a kid who has turned to the genre as he stares down the barrel of adolescence as a misfit misunderstood by his peers. His story is one thatís concerned cutting through that misunderstanding, and stop-motion animation studio Laika tells that story with a genre thatís similarly misunderstood. The cast and crew behind this film know what we know: that horror sometimes has a heart and a capacity for introspection thatís often overlooked.
It turns out that Norman (voiced by Kodi Smit-McPhee) isnít just abnormal because heís lined his walls with horror posters and spends his time watching zombie movies, as he can also communicate with the dead. Much to the dismay of his parents, he still holds conversations with his recently deceased grandmother and all the other surrounding spirits. Such a talent has made him a target for bullying and an annoyance to his older, Barbie-girl sister (Anna Kendrick). However, his talent might come in handy when heís tapped by his skuzzy, graveyard attendant uncle (John Goodman) to hold the town curse at bay during the 300th anniversary of a witch-burning.
Problems arise when heís not quite successful and unleashes an undead cadre of witch-hunters doomed to now walk the earth as penance. The fallout is a delightful little romp thatís both funny and poignant as Norman and his ragtag group--composed of fellow misfit Neil (Tucker Albrizzi), his own sister, the bully (Christopher Mintze-Plasse), and Neilís jock brother (Casey Affleck)--must figure out a way to return the undead to their graves. On the surface, it has all the makings of a cute zombie movie, and it is that on some levels--youíve got a lot of familiar iconography in the way of torch-bearing locals, the shambling undead hordes and even some gross-out gags, only theyíre all filtered through a ďkidís storyĒ that also manages to be quite mature at times. The script rewards both juvenile and mature tastes alike with clever sight gags and even more clever jokes, many of which operate in the background in this whip-smart tale that mixes mild jolts and dazzling thrills to tell a fantastic story.
Beneath the silliness is a sweet story that organically grows out of this lovingly crafted world that features an array of wonderful characters, and the filmís insistence that nearly all of them are indeed wonderful forms the crux of its story. Norman has to contend with the undead, but also his own inner turmoil as an outcast; this is a rare coming-of-age horror story that doesnít turn to body horror to symbolize the terror of adolescence--growing older without anyone understanding you is scary, but itís how it manifests on the inside here thatís important. No one understands Norman save for an unexpected and similarly misunderstood kindred spirit that he eventually encounters on his journey, and the film is so achingly devoted to and sympathetic towards these outsiders. Ultimately, itís a parable about reacting towards misunderstanding--you can either confront it and accept it, or you can dangerously internalize it before unleashing it back on those who tormented you in the first place. Bullying has been a hot topic lately, and ParaNorman insightfully examines the cycle it can propagate without sermonizing its message.
And I love that horror is embraced to tell this story; in many ways, itís the outcast genre itself and the one that would attract a kid like Norman. The adoration for the genre is apparent from the start, when a familiar faux-retro ďfeatured presentationĒ gag and some Fabio Frizzi flavored synth beats open the proceedings. We find Norman watching a movie that resembles something Argento of Fulci might have made had they ventured into stop-motion, as itís full of other-worldly lighting and what would be explicit gore if we could see it (Norman gleefully explains to his ghastly grandmother that a zombie is feasting on a victim). That aesthetic sprawls all over the film itself. Normanís hometown of Blithe Hollow is like an autumnal Rockwellian hamlet where itís always Halloween due to the heavy presence of witch imagery, and itís surrounded by an ominous forest thatís full of snarling trees. Other small touches abound--when one of those trees comes to life, itís hard not to think of The Evil Dead, and the lead witch-hunterís high cheekbones and puritanical demeanor make him a dead ringer for Peter Cushing.
The adoration doesnít become an overpowering roll-call of references, though; instead, they make for nice window dressing to compliment the overall aesthetic. ParaNorman is a fairy tale and campfire story rolled into one, sort of like The Lady in White by way of The Monster Squad in its mixture of urban legends and adventurous spirit, and itís a visual delight throughout. Laikaís distinctive look echoes their previous work on Coraline and Corpse Bride, and the juxtaposition of ghoulish, asymmetrical sights with the filmís underlying heart is a fine dichotomy that represents the gist of the filmís point: that we need to look beyond the things that scare us--be it the weird outcasts or the ones bullying us for being the weird outcasts--and see whatís really lying underneath.
For anyone whoís ever had to justify their own ďweirdness,Ē ParaNorman will soundly resonate because itís very much about embracing eccentricity, even if means your grandmotherís ghost sidles up on the couch behind you. Of course some people are strange, just as horrorís sometimes a weird genre thatís easy to write-off; however, all of these things are celebrated in this cute but not at all slight movie that insists that weirdos are sometimes the coolest, nicest people around. It goes without saying that you shouldnít dismiss it as kidís stuff--it may be that, but itís approaching horror with a child-like awe and reverence that allows it to deliver a story without a hint of cynicism, all the while reconfirming and justifying the genre's place. Sweet, smart, funny, and crafted with love, ParaNorman is one of the coolest horror movies of the year because of that. Buy it!
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