Exceptionally animated 'ParaNorman' gives us a supernatural fable with remarkable
intelligence and insight
ParaNorman Focus Features
Director: Chris Butler and Sam Fell
Screenplay: Chris Butler
Starring: The voices of Kodi Smit-McPhee, Tucker Albrizzi, Anna Kendrick, Casey Affleck,
Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Leslie Mann, Jeff Garlin, Elaine Stritch, Jodelle Ferland and John
Rated PG / 1 hour, 33 minutes
Opened August 17, 2012
(out of four)
Leave it to a stop-motion animated film to provide the kind of maturity and conscience far
beyond its protagonist's years. That's what we get in ParaNorman, which has more insight into
human nature - and a fuller perspective of it - than most films, live-action or otherwise. I
wouldn't hesitate to call it wisdom.
That it is so unusually perceptive - all while following a well-worn path with pre-arranged
solutions and lessons - is a testament to just how special it is. Outsider stories are commonplace
at the movies - perhaps more common than in almost any other medium. (Though I confess my
own personal proclivity for movies may be coloring my perspective on that.) Here we have
another in a long line of those cinematic outsiders in Norman (voiced by Kodi Smit-McPhee), a
sweet kid whose parents don't understand him, whose older sister considers him a nuisance, and
whose classmates treat him with scorn and repulsion.
Norman has a typical boy's curiosity for the morbid and macabre - horror-movie posters adorn
his wall from corner to corner. In his case, it could be because of (or maybe even in spite of) his
peculiar ability, which is that he regularly communicates with ghosts. They are essentially his
sole companionship, and he has resigned himself to that fact. Even when a friendly fellow
outcast comes his way, a husky redhead named Neil (Tucker Albrizzi), Norman is instinctively
inclined to shut him out and keep to himself and his otherworldly friends.
Norman's visions, a staple of his daily life for as long as he can remember, have of late become a
bit more elaborate, elevating to full-on hallucinations that remove him from his physical
surroundings for minutes at a time. This, he is told by his crazy Uncle Prenderghast (John
Goodman), is something of a warning, and it has to do with a centuries-old curse that may be
unleashed on this seemingly innocent town of Blithe Hollow in the coming days.
Prenderghast's death seems to put the fate of the town in Norman's hands, and in a way it does.
But the film unravels deeper layers that turn what we thought was a simple and charming
adventure story into something much more poignant. Perhaps the town isn't the real victim after
In many ways ParaNorman is not unlike this year's
Moonrise Kingdom, another great movie about lost, misunderstood children facing crises, both
physical and emotional, that their years have not fully prepared them for. In this case,
filmmakers Chris Butler and Sam Fell navigate unexpectedly prickly moral territory, imbuing a
superficially simple dramatic equation with nuanced reasoning and astounding empathy. This is
a John Carpenter film by way of John Hughes and Stephen King, at once fulfilling and
subverting coming-of-age tales and revenge fantasies alike.
Butler and Fell construct a thematic apparatus that arranges key characters in multiple positions
at once, underscoring the cyclicity of human behavior - specifically, those human behaviors that
contribute to bullying and violence, to alienation and ostracization. It's only appropriate that
ParaNorman takes the form of a horror movie, given that it so intimately examines fear as a
powerful piece of our psychological spectrum - and the way those fears contribute to the way
people treat one another, the way they respond to differences between each other, to people and
ideas they don't, can't, or refuse to understand. And as an inevitable part of that line of thought,
the film touches beautifully on forgiveness - and the emotional courage forgiveness often
There is one small admission on Norman's part late in the film that is subtly devastating - and
even shocking in the honesty of its implications. The more I think about it, the sadder and more
frightening it becomes; and yet Butler and Fell handle it so delicately, and with such conviction
for what is ultimately a more hopeful outlook on humanity.
In that way and many others, ParaNorman is an exquisite balancing act. It begins as an offbeat
comedy - consider the shot of Norman center-framed in between the stomachs of his two
arguing parents; or Norman's matter-of-fact response when his Dad asks what he's been
watching: "Sex and violence," he says - before moving into darker territory. Its tonal dexterity is
captured perfectly by stop-motion whiz Tristan Oliver (who previously shot Fantastic Mr. Fox,
Chicken Run and Wallace & Gromit in The Curse of the Were-Rabbit), who provides both
immaculate visual detail and has a precise feel for the comedic moment.
Like all the best films about outcasts or loners, this one has a rare understanding of those
characters and the complex array of emotional battles they face. ParaNorman aches for every
feeling - and earns every catharsis. At the same time, it retains a gleefully tongue-in-cheek
approach to its ghoulish material throughout - all the while building toward a knockout of a third
act, an extended emotional crescendo that indulges, twists and challenges our expectations both
of how the characters will (and/or should) behave, and of how we should feel about it.