ParaNorman (review)

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Paranorman green light

I’m “biast” (pro): love stop-motion animation

I’m “biast” (con): was not enamored of the trailer

(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)

I’m a little surprised at how ParaNorman has lingered with me over the past weeks since I saw it. Partly it’s that I was expecting something very conventional and been-there, done-that old-hat, and this fresh and clever cartoon isn’t that in the least. And partly it’s how ParaNorman goes about being so fresh and clever: by injecting a frankly astonishing atmosphere of broken-down, worn-out reality into its world. In more ways than one.

For sure, there is supernatural oddity here. Gradeschooler Norman Babcock (the voice of Kodi Smit-McPhee: Let Me In, The Road) can talk to dead people, the ghosts of whom positively litter Norman’s little New England town of Blithe Hollow, as we see on his walk to school, which takes longer than it should because he’s a polite little boy who says hello and asks after all his spirit friends on the way. It’s a funny riff on The Sixth Sense and other similar stories, particularly because Norman is so blasé about his ability and clearly accepts it as simply part of life. But the truly extraordinary thing about Norman’s trip to school is the look it gives us of the state of Blithe Hollow: rundown, economically depressed, really not a very nice place at all. The distinctively off-kilter style of the stop-motion animation of Laika, the shop that also gave us Coraline and Corpse Bride, takes on a sad skew here. I can’t recall seeing another animated Hollywood story that goes so far in the opposite direction from the typical candy-colored suburban fantasia.

If ParaNorman’s setting was a shock to me — and it was — what comes next was downright unsettling. Outside the school, Norman is accosted by a disheveled and slightly deranged older man: this is Norman’s uncle, whom he is not supposed to be talking to at all, and who, Norman explains casually to a schoolmate, is homeless. Homeless relatives are as ordinary to Norman as talking to dead people, which is, taken together, a rather dismal introduction to Norman and his world.

Dismal, yet profound and pungent, allowing ParaNorman to make its points in ways more sharp and brutal than other “children’s” films. For this becomes a story about, from many angles, ostracism and bigotry taken to extremes, and about our own unspoken prejudices and assumptions. Norman, an outcast at school for being a weirdo, will find an entree into a story as old as Blithe Hollow itself by his uncle, Mr. Prenderghast (the voice of John Goodman: Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, Happy Feet Two), an outcast from his family and from society (for, we may presume, though I don’t recall it being spelled out, having a talent similar to Norman’s). It’s the true tale — true in Norman’s world, anyway — about a “witch” who was hanged there in 1712 and a ritual that must be performed annually in order to appease her vengeful ghost. It’s a tale about Blithe Hollow, and how it, too, is now something of a forgotten recluse of a community, which we might infer has to do with its reliance on a economy related to celebrating its past as a proud faith-based torturer of women. (Alas, the real Salem, Massachusetts, which Blithe Hollow is obviously echoing, continues to do a booming business in witch tourism.) Certainly, the same spirit of lashing out in the name of fear remains a feature of the people of Blithe Hollow.

I don’t want to go overboard on the grim. ParaNorman is not relentlessly sad and bitter: it’s full of rollicking adventure and is hilariously, if cartoonishly, gruesome in ways that poke fun at horror movies and their clichés. Newbie director and screenwriter Chris Butler — who worked as a storyboard artist on Coraline and Corpse Bride, and who codirects here with Sam Fell (The Tale of Despereaux, Flushed Away) — has made a movie that is all-around entertaining. There’s plenty that’s silly and gently scary for little ones to enjoy, and even here ParaNorman manages to novel: the haunted toilet paper in the school bathroom may be one of most inventive bits of appealing to kids’ love of potty humor I’ve seen yet. But it all leads to a resolution full of zingers — some poignant, some sharp — that poke us to examine how bigotries can change, and to recognize the blinders we may still have.

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