Animated movies aimed towards children but don’t talk down to children are a rarity. Typically, animated children’s movies are filled with broad slapstick and silly circumstances because it’s often assumed that children will only hold their attention for colorful chaos. Sometimes though, a movie such as “ParaNorman” comes along that not only doesn’t treat child like dim bulbs, but also trusts that they can deal with more mature subject matter.
Norman is a bit of an odd child. Not only does he have a strong affinity for horror movies, books, etc. (particularly zombies), but he also has the ability to talk to dead people. Unfortunately, no one else can, so he is often berated by his father (who thinks he needs to “move on” from his grandmother’s death) and the school bullies on a daily basis. Soon his powers will have to be used for greater purposes though, as the resident witch spirit has come back to enact revenge on the town who murdered her 300 years before.
Fans of the 2009 animated venture “Coraline” (and by extension “The Nightmare Before Christmas”) should feel right at home with the creepy, horror-lite vibe of “ParaNorman.” It’s certainly not a coincidence that both were developed by animation house Laika, who are quickly carving out their place in the animation field amidst Pixar and Dreamworks. A large portion of the appeal of “ParaNorman” stems from its unabashed love for the horror genre, whether it’s from the funny opening movie-within-the movie and cute little references sprinkled throughout. Norman’s use of the “Halloween” theme as his cell ringtone put a big smile on my face.
The film is also unafraid of going to some macabre and dark places. This is still very much a PG-rated affair, but it doesn’t shy away from the moments that will undoubtedly freak out some of the little ones in the theater (although the ones in mine seemed pretty thick-skinned). The stop-motion animation technique was a perfect choice for creating the world of “ParaNorman,” allowing for the type of angular and bizarre designs that flesh out the eerie settings and monsters to good effect. There’s a tactile feel to the stop-motion animation that couldn’t have been achieved with the industry standard computer animation.
While there is certainly a focus on the creepy and the freaky in “ParaNorman,” there is also plenty of humor to balance things out. Truth be told, the jokes could have been stronger. Although it generally gets stronger and wittier as the plot continues along, the first half has multiple obvious jokes (“How’s it hanging,” says Norman to a ghost that is stuck on a tree). However, I do give the film a huge amount of credit for allowing the kid characters to talk like kids actually do. There’s no mild cursing a la “The Goonies,” but the humor (mostly later on) is remarkably more subversive than the trailers would indicate without using it as a crutch to lean on.
By the time the plot really gets rolling and Norman uncovers the truths behind certain characters, “ParaNorman” becomes unexpectedly moving. The zombies descending on the town become more than just lumbering monsters, and a late scene between Norman and the witch is at turns both intense and touching, revealing a level of dimension that gives the film staying power beyond the jokes and endearing characters. If you’re a fan of animation (and who isn’t really?), there is a great chance you will enjoy “ParaNorman,” and if you’re a horror fan then you will like it even more.