From the beginning of the movie, with the Focus Features card being presented in the cheesy colored lights and bad tape quality of dozens of old 80s horror VHS tapes, it’s obvious that ParaNorman is a movie made by people who get it. Who get what it means to be the weird kid who sat up all night watching horror movies. The kid who was always a little weird. The kid who looked at the zombies and monsters on the TV and dreamed of how liberating an adventure it would be to have those things happen in real life.
ParaNorman, the second film produced by Laika, the company that also did Coraline, a love letter to all the macabre childhoods that many of us grew up with. Its hero, Norman (Kodi Smit-McPhee), is a young kid in a small town that just doesn’t understand his weirdness. Most of us could relate, especially with how ruthlessly he’s picked on by the school bully (Christopher Mintz-Plasse, of all people). Of course, Norman’s problem is more than just being a little weird: he can see and talk to ghosts.
He’s not quiet about it, but nobody believes him even in his own family, so Norman ends up retreating further into the world of the dead. There’s an early sequence of him walking to school, talking to people or things that aren’t there, that manages to be profound in its loneliness and touching in the warmth that he shows these spirits. And really, that’s indicative of the entire movie, which goes out of its way to juxtapose gags and horror riffs with moments of poignant sadness and emotion that normally don’t stray into this sort of animated fare.
There’s a great emotional weight to the characters here that represents a more rounded maturity to storytelling, from Norman’s struggles with self-acceptance versus an uncaring world, to the adorable friendship he strikes up with the other outside, Neil (Tucker Albrizzi), a kid picked on just as much as Norman for being the token loser fat kid. But even the periphery characters manage to rise above being cliches. Norman’s older sister Courtney (Anna Kendrick) starts as the kind of airhead who disparages her little brother and throws herself wantonly at boys, but ends up in a much more complicated situation with her love interest, Neil’s older brother Mitch (an unrecognizable Casey Affleck).
The humor is strong, riffing heavily on horror tropes and even outright homages to such disparate things as The Thing and Phantasm. If you know your horror movies, there’s plenty for you here, but even if you’re not encyclopedic the truth is that the gags all work well on their own. Things are often genuinely a bit tense (especially for kids, who I imagine might be actually a bit scared and thus fall even more for the movie) but almost always turn it into great bits of both physical comedy and surprisingly robust joke lines. There’s a lot of people saying ‘hell’ and not shying away from dismemberment jokes for a PG rating, but it all is in service of a movie that feels timelessly gutsy in how it presents its horror comedy. It’s no Shaun of the Dead, but you also could show this to a kid and both enjoy it together. It’s a perfect generational film.
Eventually Norman gets pulled into a plot where he is bequeathed a sacred duty to protect the town, one with a history of witch persecution, from keeping an annual curse from causing the dead to rise from their graves and terrorize the town. And it’s only him, and the line of ancestors starting with his weird uncle (John Goodman), and the ability to talk to the dead that can save the town. But what’s interesting isn’t the setup, but how perfectly it unfolds in directions that are surprising and downright brave at times. There is a moment deep into the film which turns a smartly funny horror-comedy riff into something openly sad and emotional, and it carries the film into a climax that manages to both embrace the fun of this kind of adventure and evoke actual feelings of fear and heartbreak.
And that’s the real surprise of ParaNorman: not that it’s funny, but that it’s often so much more than that. It’s the kind of movie that transcends what often is passed off as children’s fare to become something much more universal, and much more effective, than it ever would be if it was just jokes or just seriousness. The balance is what gives it a sense of grace, a light footed playfulness that lets it get serious and never lose the magic of its storytelling. And that, ultimately, is not just something that ‘kid’ movies need, but that all movies could use more of.
Note: I saw the movie in 3D, projected digitally. Like Coraline before it, it looks great in 3D, with the stop motion naturally filling up the spaces they’re filmed in. It gives it a charming diorama quality that works far better than outright 3D gags. That said, pick to your preference. So long as you’re seeing the movie, you can do no wrong.