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ParaNorman

Last night, I finally got around to revisiting Coraline, and I was glad to see that it was every bit as awesome as I remembered it. Not only was the music neatly atmospheric, but the animation was staggering from first to last (though some shots admittedly looked a lot better than others). What’s more, the visuals were loaded with genuinely dark imagery that positively flowed over with creativity. Also, watching the film in 2D, it really hit me just how masterfully the filmmakers utilized 3D. The movie takes a serious dip in quality without it.

At first, I thought that most of these strengths came courtesy of the great Henry Selick, who wrote and directed the film. It’s an easy conclusion to reach, given Selick’s previous work on The Nightmare Before Christmas, James and the Giant Peach, Corpse Bride, etc. Of course, I’m sure that Neil Gaiman deserves a lot of credit for Coraline as well, since he wrote the source material and kept in close contact with Selick throughout the production.

So here’s ParaNorman, the second film made by Laika (Hillsboro represent!). And despite the fact that it was made without any involvement from Selick or Gaiman, everything that was great about Coraline is back and better than ever in ParaNorman.

The music in this film sounds amazing, and it doesn’t have any of the dopey (albeit brief) musical numbers that weighed down Coraline. Also, as great as the animation was in Laika’s previous work, the animation and character design in this film are far and away superior. Additionally, Laika continues to use 3D in such a way that polarized glasses are absolutely essential. Best of all, Laika has steadfastly refused to treat its audience in a condescending way and tone down the frightening imagery.

In fact, the filmmakers went the extra mile and put in a ton of horror film references. Older viewers and film aficionados will definitely appreciate the multitude of inside jokes and references to B-movie genre schlock of yesteryear, even if most of it goes over kids’ heads. The film shows a great level of affection for old zombie films, and even works as a parody of them in many ways. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

The setting is a little Massachusetts town called Blithe Hollow. Legend has it that exactly 300 years ago, a woman was found guilty of witchcraft and burned. In the process, however, the sorceress put a curse on the seven judges and jury members who found her guilty of witchcraft, condemning them to rise from the dead and walk the earth as hideous monsters. Of course, the “curse” never manifested and the zombies never showed up, so the legend is now just a means of driving up tourism.

The hero of our story is Norman (Kodi Smit-McPhee), who somehow has the ability to speak with ghosts. Naturally, nobody else sees the ghosts that Norman does, so the entire town knows him as some mentally disturbed kid. Norman is a total pariah, even though he’s not the only one who can see dead people.

It turns out that Norman’s estranged uncle (Mr. Prenderghast, voiced by John Goodman) also has the gift of speaking to the dead, and he’s been keeping the witch’s curse at bay for the past few years. Sadly, Mr. Prenderghast passes away just before the town’s 300th anniversary, when the witch’s victims are once again due to start rising from the dead. Not that a little thing like death keeps the guy from passing his responsibility on to Norman, of course. So Norman sets out to delay the curse for another year, but the ritual goes awry. The zombies rise up, and things quickly go from bad to worse.

When we first meet Norman, it’s made patently obvious that he’s a bully target. I know this character arc is a cliche — complete with a stock bully character (probably the only time Christopher Mintz-Plasse will ever get to play a bully) and a weirdo “best friend” character voiced by Tucker Albrizzi — but the film does it right in so many ways. For one thing, Norman doesn’t whine or cry about  his “punching bag” status. He just goes about life with the knowledge that the problem isn’t with him. After all, he never asked to start seeing dead people, and it’s not like there’s anything he can do to fix that. Norman doesn’t even have the option of going to his parents or his teachers, because the adults all think he’s a freak, too. Even his own dad (Perry, voiced by Jeff Garlin) subjects Norman to endless verbal and emotional abuse on the subject, and his mom (Sandra, voiced by Leslie Mann) is a vapid ditz with no idea of what to do.

So Norman withdraws from everyone else and makes friends with the only company he has: The local ghosts. Then again, the film shows us exactly how weird it is to see Norman talking with people and animals who don’t seem to be there. The result is a kind of recursion: Norman sees things that no one else does, so everyone else shuns him. Norman responds by talking even more with dead people, so people shun him even more.

Of course, Norman’s spiritual friends are nowhere to be seen after the first act or so. That’s something of a plot hole, but it’s not like they could’ve done anything about the whole zombie ordeal, so whatever.

In case it isn’t obvious by now, this is one of those movies where the main character — a child — is the only competent person in a town full of idiots. Luckily, this is intentional. The film takes great pains at showing us precisely how stupid these townsfolk are, and the movie gets some great laughs when the rampant idiocy is played for humor. That said, there is a (very, very) thin layer of compassion for these characters. After all, the people of Blithe Hollow are understandably afraid of Norman, not to mention the zombies that appear later on. They’re only acting stupidly out of fear, which expresses one of the movie’s central themes.

On a similar note, let’s look at the zombies. Yes, they start out as your typical horrifying monsters, apparently determined to frighten our main characters, eat their brains, etc. But then, about halfway through, a fascinating reversal happens. First, we see the town of Blithe Hollow through the zombies’ eyes. For a moment, just try to imagine how modern civilization would look to someone who’s been dead for 300 years. Pretend that you’re an 18th-century pilgrim who suddenly wakes up to see a world of fluorescent lighting, reality TV, violent drivers, etc. This gets across the very interesting notion that these zombies might be more afraid of us than we are of them.

Then the townsfolk find out that zombies are walking the streets. Remember, these particular townsfolk are complete and total idiots, prone to random acts of destruction for the sake of their own ego and paranoia. As a result, the entire town of Blithe Hollow quickly devolves into a mindless and incoherent mob, out for blood and mayhem. At this point, I had to stop and try to remember just who the zombies in this film are supposed to be.

Not only is this a very intriguing role reversal, but it gets across the idea that adults are not infallible. The movie has no problem stating that parents, teachers and police officers aren’t necessarily responsible people, and can be every bit as impulsive and self-centered as any child. I know this is hardly news to any grown-up, but generations of kids have been raised to respect their elders as authority figures and role models. As such, I’d argue that showing adults to be fuckups on such a colossal scale in a kids’ movie was a very bold move.

Also, it’s worth repeating that this angle works so well precisely because — Norman excluded — every character in this movie is presented in such an outlandish fashion. Christopher Mintz-Plasse, John Goodman, Anna Kendrick, Casey Affleck, Jeff Garlin, Leslie Mann, Alex Borstein, Tucker Albrizzi, and all the other members of the cast take a great deal of delight in chewing scenery and making clowns of themselves. Not only does this make it easy to laugh at them, but it makes Norman all the more sympathetic. With a town full of nutjobs like this, who could blame Norman for being a recluse?

Moving on to the other main theme, the film argues that it’s okay to be a bit weird. Given the premise of this kids’ film, that should come as no surprise. However, it bears mentioning that the film expresses the theme partly by drawing parallels between Norman and the witch. Yes, this movie compares middle school bullying to the Salem witch trials. Before you react to that, remember that this boy was ostracized by an entire town for claiming that he could speak to dead people. In context, that really isn’t so different from a woman who was burned to death for suspicion of supernatural powers. In any other movie, the comparison between school bullies and witch hunts would seem outrageous, insensitive, and tin-eared. With this premise, however, it’s actually kind of clever.

(Side note: It’s later implied that Norman and the witch might be somehow related, but this is never confirmed and nothing is ever done with the point. A minor letdown and a missed opportunity, in my opinion.)

Anyway, this theme leads me to the movie’s major flaw. See, the thing about Norman is that he’s a perfectly ordinary boy, no smarter or stronger or more gifted with magic than any other middle-school kid. The only thing that really makes him special (aside from his hair, which somehow automatically sticks up like that) is that Norman can talk to dead people. Put more simply, Norman’s superpower is that he can talk. And brother, does he talk.

Norman talks to zombies, he talks to the angry mob of villagers, and he talks to the witch. His responsibility is to calm the lot of them down and make them see reason. This of course means talking about how fear makes monsters out of everyone, being unusual is okay, two wrongs don’t make a right, and so on. As a direct result, this movie gets extremely preachy during the third act. Norman (and by extension, the movie) viciously and savagely beats everyone in earshot (including and especially us) with the various themes of the film.

Yet in spite of how blunt this movie gets toward the end, it remains entertaining to watch. Though the climax does get preachy, it skillfully avoids being tedious. This is due in large part to the fact that the climax has a huge amount at stake. An entire town of (admittedly boneheaded) people are depending on Norman to succeed, and Norman himself faces very real danger. That Norman himself is such a likable character (thanks in no small part to Kodi Smit-McPhee, I might add) also helps a great deal, of course. Additionally, when we finally learn more about who the witch is and what her motivations are, she turns out to be a very interesting character, and her parallels with Norman are wonderfully presented. In fact, all of Norman’s thematic babbling doubles as character development for them both.

Last but not least, the climactic preaching can be forgiven because the technical aspects are that damned good. The animation, music, and creativity on display are all so captivating that I couldn’t keep my eyes off the screen. So much effort went into the visuals and the character development, especially during the third act, that I can grudgingly forgive some blunt thematic expression.

To be frank, it’s a miracle ParaNorman works as well as it does. The film’s preachiness and questionable use of the Salem witch trials would have sunk any other movie, but it’s all toward messages that kids and adults will both appreciate. It also helps that Norman makes for a likable protagonist, everyone around him is delightfully stupid, and the voice actors all sound like they’re having a blast. A lot of talent clearly went into this movie, particularly in the score and the splendid animation. There’s also a ton of creativity to see here, especially in how the movie so deftly blends horror with comedy.

I absolutely recommend seeing the movie, and the 3D premium should be considered mandatory.

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