ParaNorman (2012) - Can't Stop the Movies
Can't Stop the Movies

ParaNorman (2012)

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A whimsical, quirky animated film about a kid who fights zombies that isn't connected to Tim Burton? You read that right, dear readers!

ParaNorman is the story of Norman (Kodi Smit-McPhee), kid who's only friends are the equally bullied fat kid at his school (Tucker Albrizzi) and ghosts who haunt his town of Blithe Hollow that only he can see. This sixth sense gets him labeled as an outcast by the close-minded townsfolk. Even Norman's (living) family want little do with him. Unfortunately for them, Norman is the only one who can save his town from the curse of a long-dead witch and a (modest) army of the undead. Can Norman gather a rag-tag group of bullies, jocks and cheerleaders to fight the coming zombie apocalypse?

If that plot sounds familiar, that's because it is. ParaNorman follows, well, pretty much every tried-and-true kids' movie cliché. Every character is a stereotype: Norman's father is an abrasive jerk who can't stand that his son is “weird”, his mother is doting in an aging hippie sort of way, his sister is a self-absorbed cheerleader and his uncle is insane in that annoying sort of way. Even his best (living) friend is little more than your stock “quirky fat kid” who's dialogue mostly consists of Invader Zim-style non-sequitur humor. The characters who round out the supporting cast may as well have just been named “bully,” “jock” and “intolerant jack-ass #1-20.”

The closest we get to characters with any level of depth are Norman himself and the evil witch who severs as the film's antagonist. This is only because they appear to be the only characters who actually learn something over the course of the film, but I'll get into that a little bit later.

It's at this point that I come to a quandary: I'll typically slag a film for using stereotypes instead of characters, but I'm giving ParaNorman a pass. Not because it's a kid's film, but rather because the things it does do well it does very well.

First off is the world design. I've always had a soft spot for stop-motion animation. I've always felt that there is a certain “realness” that is achieved through using actual, physical models that, despite the advances in both traditional and computer-generated animation, simply is not quite as present in other animated mediums. The world of ParaNorman practically breathes; as shallow as most of the characters feel, the world they live in almost makes up for it. The level of detail that is crammed into some of those sets, particularly Norman's room and his uncles' dilapidated cabin, is incredible.

The design is aided in no small part by the cinematography. ParaNorman really captures a lot of that classic horror feel in the camerawork alone: The tight, claustrophobic shots inside haunted mansions, or the eerily calm panoramic shots of the magic storm moments before it descends upon the town. Yes, ParaNorman manages to instill a sense of actual awe and dread in some of those shots.

And the use of color. Look, I know Tim Burton typically has a monopoly on the “spooky kid's film” genre, and I do like his work, but ParaNorman's color pallet can only be described as the polar opposite to Burton's. It's bright and vivid, and engaging in a way that the screencaps I've included hardly do justice to.

I'd almost go so far as to say that the film is worth watching for the sheer spectacle of it alone, but there is something more to ParaNorman. Despite the film's seemingly re-hashed story, there are some fairly radical ideas lurking just below the surface. I'm going to get into some slightly spoilery territory here, and although the plot twist in ParaNorman are pretty much telegraphed, I'll throw up a warning anyway.

ParaNorman is, at heart, an anti-bullying message. You know, don't pick on people different from you because we are all different and have our own special talents. It's not exactly a new line in kid's films, but it does go in some decidedly different direction. It isn't so much that the film is about bullying, as much as the scope of bullying it covers. I'm not sure if I'd call ParaNorman an anti-religious film, but it points more than a few accusatory fingers at it, Puritanism in particular.

There's also a pretty big twist involving the zombies, and the scene when they finally invade the town is a pretty clever role-reversal.

But what really stuck out at me with ParaNorman was how bittersweet the ending seemed. Is it really a spoiler to say that Norman saves the day in the end? That his family learns to accept him for who he is? Probably not. But what is interesting is how no other (living) character in the film actually learns anything. Granted there is only one real post-zombie invasion scene featuring the supporting cast, but in that scene they managed to demonstrate exactly what they learned from their ordeal: Nothing. Ultimately, the message seems to be “Kids, you might change some of the people some of the time, but most people will always be assholes.”

This is also reflected in the climactic final battle between Norman and the witch, wherein Norman realizes that he's just a tool of his ancestors sent to fix their mistakes. And you can there is more than a small part of him that wants to side with the witch instead. It's interesting to see the hero of a film, locked in the final battle with the antagonist and still be conflicted about whether what he's doing will change anything, or if it's even the right thing to do.

ParaNorman isn't going to be the next big thing in kid's entertainment. It's probably not going to make much of a bleed through into the teen and young adult audiences, either, and by this time next year it'll probably be all but forgotten. But beyond the cliched story and (mostly) non-sequitur humor, there are some fairly bold themes that the film tries to tackle. Plus it's just a joy to look at. It's a film that deserves to be seen and dissected.

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Posted by Jacob

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  1. Once again you’ve hit just about every point I could have had about this movie. Great review. The scene where Norman begins hallucinating during rehearsal for the school play was actually pretty spooky and allowed me the glimmer of hope that the movie wouldn’t fall into the typical traps that most children’s movies do. Of course I was wrong but it was still really fun to look at. Like you said there’s just some inherent realness that stop motion captures. I really enjoyed Coraline so I hope this movie made enough money to keep the studio going.

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