Hopefully this my last filler review. Here we go…
The last time I watched Paranorman I was working a grueling job that started at 3:00 AM. On a “good-night” I would nap a few hours then take a car to a bus to a loud building then go inside a truck with hundreds upon hundreds of boxes. It was exhausting. One night I was laying down for my nap—before being crushed by another dose of adulthood (and boxes)—when a movie came on TV. It was Paranorman. I’d seen Laika’s 2012 stop-motion horror/comedy before (and enjoyed it) but had no intention of watching it for more than a few minutes on this particular night. I watched the whole thing. But I didn’t go to work that night tired. I went with a sense of whimsy. Content even.
Paranorman is a comforting movie but it doesn’t do that on charm alone. It’s a movie that deals with loss, the adverse effects isolation can have on a person, and how to overcome all of that. Even when it seems like life is at its worst. This isn’t a zombie movie for kids. It’s a zombie movie for life.
Paranorman opens with a movie-within-a-movie, a grindhouse-y zombie movie with cheap effects and boom mics in the frame. We pull out to reveal Norman (Kodi Smit-Mcphee) watching the movie with his Grandma (Elaine Stritch) who asks him to turn the heat up. Norman goes to the kitchen where his three family members bicker. There’s Norman’s disgruntled dad Perry (Jeff Garlin), his soft-spoken mom Sandra (Leslie Mann), and bratty teen sister Courtney (Anna Kendrick). Norman tells his dad that Grandma wants him to turn the heat up only for Perry to respond “Your grandma’s dead, Norman!” What a reveal as we discover Norman, in Sixth Sense fashion can see and speak to the dead.
What separates Norman’s gift/curse from a movie like The Sixth Sense is that Norman isn’t haunted by the dead people he sees. The dead people Norman encounters in his daily routine are friends and acquaintances. Norman’s presence is comforting to these people stuck in a limbo-like state between life and death. Seeing dead people isn’t Norman’s problem. His problem is the living.
Norman is a pariah among his peers and more or less the entire town of Blithe Hollow. Though he’s not entirely alone. Apart from his Grandma, Norman has a friend in Neil (Tucker Albrizzi) a chubby and sickly classmate of Norman who despite his shortcomings comes at the world with unflinching optimism. It’s a character that a much worse children’s film would cram full of buzz words and catchphrases but in this film, Neil is sweet and endearing. He’s my favorite character. He accepts and understands Norman. Of course, there is another who understands Norman.
Out in the woods lives Norman’s eccentric granduncle Mr. Prenderghast (John Goodman) who can also see and speak with the dead. Except this ability has driven Prenderghast to the brink of insanity and death. In fact, he’s so close to death that he must seek out Norman before he dies so that Norman can carry on his work. What kind of work? Norman (like his uncle) must read from an old book to a spot out in the woods to stop the witch’s curse. And after his granduncle dies he must do this once a year. Forever.
He fails. Though not without trying. Norman’s bully Alvin (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) interferes which results in zombie Puritans rising from the grave and mobbing the town of Blithe Hollow. Which leaves Norman and his friends to undo the curse and save the town. Again, in a lesser children’s film, the plot wouldn’t delve much deeper than this. But this film is different.
Skip the next two paragraphs if you don’t want the film spoiled. So in the film, it’s established that Blithe Hollow killed a witch hundreds of years ago, which the town has kind of embraced as a selling point for tourists. Now the witch seeks revenge on the town for her death by unleashing a horde of the undead. Except the undead are the corpses of original Puritans that killed the witch and they have no intention of causing harm. In fact, they spend most of the movie trying to reach out to Norman to help him stop the curse. We sympathize with them but not for long when we discover…
The witch was a little girl. Just like Norman, Aggie (Jodelle Ferland), could speak to the dead which resulted in her being outcasted and killed by the townsfolk. That’s so sad! But it highlights the dangers of alienating others. There’s no real bad guy in this story. I mean, the Puritans were bad for what they did, but they were scared. Fear is powerful. Therefore Norman must act as an intermediary between all sides of the dilemma.
The themes of loss and alienation are so much deeper in Paranorman than most fare for children. This is a film with real lessons and value. It has a lot of fun along the way with zombies and action and laughs. I haven’t even mentioned a great supporting cast of characters. In particular, there’s Neil’s slow but sweet jock brother Mitch (Casey Affleck). But Norman’s internal struggle is the heart of the film.
Laika deserves way more credit for their ambition. They make beautifully handcrafted films with dense worlds and stories that deal with complex emotions. Why they haven’t been as successful as a company like Pixar, I’m not sure. Not commercial enough? Maybe. But Paranorman is a film that can help people. A film that can open our eyes or brighten our day. I know that’s what it did for me on one dreary dark commute to my bus. I didn’t even mind being in the truck that day.