It is possible for family films, like any other film genre (or, for that matter, any other entertainment medium), to play to the cheap seats. It’s just that in the case of family films, those seats are brightly colored, made of molded plastic, and help little Jimmy see over the lady in front of him at the theater. When a filmmaker resigns himself to aiming the core of their movie low enough that only the tiniest of funny bones will be struck, story and character development take an unfortunate back seat. This issue has been raised and examined in many reviews on this particular site, and often due to the fact that the family film under review is guilty of sacrificing craft for a demographic-pandering layup. ParaNorman also calls to mind this issue, but quite fortunately, that’s only because it stands as a sterling example of a film that exists free of that compromise.
ParaNorman is the tale of a boy named, unsurprisingly, Norman, who has been blessed/cursed with the ability to converse with the dead. This ability, as one would expect, leads to his being ostracized by his peers, mocked by his sister, and even resented by his father. Norman’s typically benevolent visions of the other side become increasingly sinister and foretelling of a horrible fate facing his community. Are the sins of Blithe Hollow’s past threatening to destroy its future? Is Norman the only person equipped to halt the impending Armageddon? Will saving his town finally get the bullies off his back?
The boldness of ParaNorman is striking, staggering even. It’s not often that family films take any amount of risk, measured or otherwise, but nearly every decision made by writer/director Chris Butler and co-director Sam Fell is against-the-grain, and in service of the story and the rich characters. It’s even bold in tone. It brazenly walks the line between light comedy and dark, horrific set pieces. Its core plot complication is among the most unsettling story elements to ever appear in a PG film. The balance it strikes here keeps ParaNorman from feeling tonally muddled or having any sort of genre-specific agenda. It draws from the horror well, and often does so with frightening resolve, but it’s a celebration of the way we see horror films as kids; a marked innocence to the scares. It’s bold in its joke construction as well, as it utilizes a fair amount of black comedy usually reserved for much more grown-up fare. Not only that, but one particular joke toward the end is one of the most organically progressive gags to date in family cinema.
Norman is a protagonist of Speilbergian proportions. He’s a representation of the loneliness of youth and the isolation that comes in those turbulent years when self-concept is as vague and intangible as beings from a spectral plane. Norman, like Haley Joel Osment’s character in The Sixth Sense, is burdened with his gift. Yet unlike little Cole Sear, Norman’s burden is not a consequence of fear, but rather social anxiety. Norman doesn’t fear the specters surrounding him, he just desperately wishes anyone else could see them so he wouldn’t feel like such an outcast. These ghosts may be friendly, but Norman is woefully lacking in actual living friends. It also results in a heartbreaking strain on his relationship with his father, again inciting complimentary comparisons to Amblin movies. Norman’s burden is what leads him to be the one person capable of saving the day, but the way in which the script calls into this device his emotional complexity in addition to his supernatural abilities makes for a gorgeous, heart-wrenching climax worthy of the likes of Elliot’s tearful goodbye in E.T.
And speaking of gorgeous, the animation in ParaNorman is spellbinding. The shared production roster DNA with Henry Selick’s Coraline is visible from space, but though the visual style is similar, the sheer amount of different animation aesthetics at play within ParaNorman is impressive and creates a strikingly unique signature. The character designs rely on exaggerated features and wild physical attributes, and yet at no point is their profound humanity lost in the translation. Further testament to the fearlessness of this production, there is an incredible ambition to the animated sequences here. The slow, circular pan that takes us into Norman’s world is remarkable, the gathering, cursed storm clouds seethe and roar in a sea of brilliant color, and there is even an entirely separate aesthetic utilized to create an introductory film within the film that not only provides a comedic blueprint for the rest of ParaNorman, but also speaks to the bountiful imaginations of its filmmakers. Any single shot, any random animation cell from this film would find elegant purchase on your bedroom wall as a beautiful work of art.
ParaNorman fantastically matches sight with sound. The score appropriately teeters between ominous horror pieces–long, heavy strokes on the strings and low, moaning horns – and more plucky, playful graveyard dances. Of particular note is the infusion of ’80s era Casio rhythms reminiscent of John Carpenter’s soundtracks. It hints at a formidable era in genre filmmaking without becoming beholden to homage or undermining its own identity. The voices heard are similarly diverse and well-tailored to the lineup of bizarre personages. John Goodman as the creepy homeless man, a rare supporting voice for him, is a personal favorite, but there isn’t a single miscast vocal talent to be heard.
Cobble all these severed pieces together and the resulting monster is one that may feign menace, but ultimately is inescapably sweet and wholly loveable.
The Upside: Gorgeous, diverse animation, an ingenious and well-balanced story, and a pitch perfect score. Easily one of the best animated films this year.
The Downside: If your little ones haven’t yet developed a taste for the heavier genres, they might find ParaNorman a bit too frightening.
On the Side: Norman is voiced by Kodi Smit-McPhee, who played the young male lead in the Let The Right One In remake, Let Me In.