Retro Review: PARANORMAN (2012){0}

“A boy who can talk to the dead must come to the rescue of his unfriendly town when a bunch of zombies and an evil witch rise from the dead and start to raise holy hell.”

Doesn’t exactly sound like a “kiddie flick,” does it? Not really. And that’s only one of the reasons that the fantastic new piece of feature-length stop-motion animation known as ParaNorman is such an unexpected treat. Here is a family-friendly horror/comedy that treats both genres with a lot of respect, and achieves a masterful balancing act between PG-rated chuckles and material that’s, well, morbid, creepy, and sometimes pretty gross. In other words, your 10-year-old son may now have a new favorite film. And you’ll probably have a damn good time, too.

My theory is that, while adults are often terrified of death, young kids are innocently fascinated by it. For most children, hopefully, the concept of mortality is so far-off and alien that they have no problem laughing at dark humor, ostensibly creepy monsters, and broad slapstick in which corpses get battered around a little. Dark humor, black comedy, gallows humor, call it what you like, but it’s healthy to giggle at the things you’re afraid of, and not only does ParaNormanprove this theory; it’s actually a film about this theory.

Norman Babcock is a lonely misfit: his parents are clueless, his sister is a jerk, and the kids at school are predictably unkind to the weird kid. To be fair, the odd but affable Norman does have a very strange talent: he can speak to ghosts. Nobody believes it, of course, but Norman sees apparitions everywhere: his grandma still watches TV on the couch, a new friend’s deceased canine pops up, and there are dozens of other spirits hanging around the kid’s dour little town. But when a mysterious weirdo pops up and tells Norman that he must save the city from an impending witches’ curse, the young boy’s arcane skills are put to practical use — even if everybody still thinks the kid is insane.

Taken purely on its surface level, ParaNorman is delightful mixture of comedy, horror, adventure, great music, witty dialogue, and a strong affection for all things creepy. Filmmakers Sam Fell and Chris Butler clearly understand the appeal of monsters, especially where kids are concerned, and (again, just on the surface) ParaNorman is simply a whole lot of fun. But, like most great kids’ movies, ParaNorman has a lesson to share. It’s a simple one. I’ll even spoil it: “People can be truly rotten when they’re scared.” ParaNorman‘s slyly intelligent screenplay is chock-full of witty little satirical barbs, knowing winks to genre classics of yesteryear, and just enough “edge” to stretch the PG rating to its limit — but it also hammers home one great point: everyone, especially grown-ups, can be really rotten when dealing with things they don’t like or understand. If the filmmakers have to resort to zombies with crumbling bodies and goofy ghosts to make their rather worthwhile (and very topical) point, so be it: the message is received loud and clear.

Darkly beautiful and charmingly misshapen, ParaNorman comes from the team who brought us The Corpse Bride and Coraline, and their latest effort complements those other films remarkably well. Laika Entertainment seems intent on delving into the section of the youthful brain that finds forgotten creatures and wounded monsters so damn interesting. ParaNorman is their best film so far. The stop-motion animation is both wonderfully old-fashioned and eye-poppingly modern at the same time (there’s not a touch of physical symmetry to be found; the characters are odd-looking but still sort of lovable; and the more specialized animation used to bring the “evil” witch to life is nothing short of dazzling), the screenplay is a wonderful mixture of horror satire and legitimate adventure, and (thank god) none of the filmmakers’ messages get in the way of a ghoulish good time.

I’m a big proponent of sharing (perhaps slightly) scary movies with your children, and while ParaNorman might be a little too icky for very young kids, there’s nothing here a kid of seven or eight can’t handle. Despite a few mild jolts, the zombies are mostly harmless, and when the movie does get legitimately scary, it’s for good reason. (Let’s just say the witch has good reason to be angry.) For treating young moviegoers with some respect, ParaNorman earns big marks, but for appealing to adults with such odd confidence, the movie becomes even more impressive. 

That ParaNorman is very funny, sorta scary, and legitimately touching when all is said and done… that makes it one of the best family films of the year. Fair warning: your little boys will fall madly in love with this movie. Your daughters will too, most likely, but little boys are a lot more obnoxious about they movies they love. Don’t deny it.