For kids and monsters and kids who love monsters (and for adults, too!) comes a movie about kids and monsters and kids who love monsters (and it’s about adults, too!). Far from normal, ParaNorman is sweet little stop-motion confection that bleeds love for horror cinema and channels that passion into a concentrated celebration of odd outsiders and zealous zombies and the point where these two groups meet. That the script matches the caliber of meticulous detail that powers the painstaking animation process is a great reward of this dazzling picture. Writer Chris Butler, who shares directing duties with Sam Fell, doesn’t just sit back and let the animation do the talking. There’s a lot of specific care taken to give the story an impressive edge that carves the commentary and sharpens the homage.
We first meet protagonist Norman (honestly voiced by Kodi Smit-McPhee) in his living room, where he’s watching a movie (about zombies, of course). This opening scene soon lets us meet each of the other members of Norman’s family and it only takes a few moments for Butler and Fell to introduce Norman’s mother (voiced by Leslie Mann), father (voiced by Jeff Garlin), and sister (voiced by Anna Kendrick) as interesting and unique individuals whose relationships with Norman are distant without being cruel. It’s immediately clear that Norman is on the outside looking in and it’s deftly established that the issue stems from Norman’s ability to converse with ghosts. This fantastical twist is revealed in a smart manner that plants us right next to Norman, so we see his special ability first from his perspective.
And experiencing a ghostly encounter with Norman by our side is a great way to see things the way he sees them — instantly acceptable and inescapable. We’re on the receiving side of the scorn from that point on, which enhances the emotional potential of Norman’s arc. No one in our protagonist’s small town understands him and when he’s not listening to his parents argue about his oddness at home, he’s dealing with bullies and insultingly marked lockers at school. It all sounds like standard outcast fare with a would-be kid hero at the story’s core, but while such labeling may apply here on the surface, ParaNorman is so successful because it actually invites us into Norman’s world in a way that links us to his predicament.
We’re not simply asked to root for Norman because he’s the outcast kid with a big heart or anything sentimentally minded like that. Instead, we become his partners early on, all of us aware of what he can do and how misunderstood his abilities are. This connection to the protagonist raises the dramatic stakes and further fleshes out the realm of conflict. Norman is never a freak to us and while his ascension to potential town hero could be cynically dismissed as obvious and inevitable, I consider it quite impressive because we’re locked into his experience so firmly and so immediately that we feel the increasing weight of the obstacles as the conflict closes in, creeping at first and barreling at us soon after.
Norman’s tiny town has been residing in the shadow of a nasty witch hunt for three hundred years now and while the local school has immortalized the old-fashioned, stereotype-riddled version of events in a seemingly innocent play, the truth is about to come out. With some ill-timed advice from his crazy, supposedly stinky uncle (voiced by a perfectly cast, wonderfully growly John Goodman), Norman finds himself in a race against the clock to appease the witch who will wreak havoc on the town if given the opportunity to rise from her grave. Zombies soon follow and a delightfully entertaining and engaging adventure ensues.
Familiar horror elements are refashioned for kids, but Butler and Fell are sure to not mistake softening the scares for dumbing down the thematic content. A playful reversal of monster roles is enacted when the mob of townsfolk band together to attack the assumedly evil living dead creatures now roaming their streets. But when the mob members try to claw their way into the Town Hall, they become zombie-like in their actions — a great blob of separate flesh moving mindlessly as one. Norman himself occupies the role of misunderstood monster for most of the movie, a point that becomes poignantly important in the third act.
Even when it comes to the villainous witch, ParaNorman is always interested in exploring the conflict with careful attention to character development. The witch is far from a random monster selection here and the way Butler and Fell weave her into Norman’s arc is emotionally satisfying and smartly planned. The plot threads all wrap together starting from the very first act and each character contributes greatly to the story so that friends and family are involved players and not just convenient presences.
Watching kids and monsters be treated with such cinematic respect is a joy. Watching kids and monsters be brought to life with such gorgeous stop-motion animation only makes all that watching even more fun. But taking all of this several steps further to explore the character-driven intersection of graveyard ghouls and obsessed outcasts is what gives ParaNorman the push towards greatness. Well, that and a sparkling sense of humor, a terrific voice cast, and some memorably designed creatures. The key here is the intelligent imagination and the imaginative intelligence. The plot is so tightly structured and the subject matter so lovingly embraced. These monsters are marvelous. All you need to do to join the excitement is open your eyes and see them.