2012 Universal Pictures (Cinema)
Paranorman is a film about fear and prejudice; of how a young boy overcomes the abuse and challenges of being different to solve an ancient curse, bring peace to the dead and save the townsfolk from themselves. Whilst marketed as a children's film it's also definitely not one for the really young with some darker and more complex themes than you'd get in your average Disney affair.
Young Norman Babcock (voiced by Kodi Smit-McPhee) has a gift. He can see and speak to the dead; those souls that are trapped in spiritual form because they have unfinished business on earth. Because of this gift Norman is misunderstood, feared and ridiculed by his school mates, his neighbours and even his father and feels isolated and alone. He mistrusts and shuns genuine attempts at connecting with him, even the ever persistent chubby school chum Neil Downe (Tucker Albrizzi), and buries himself at home in his love of horror films and paraphernalia.
300 years ago the good townsfolk of Blithe Hollow executed an evil witch. Dragged from her mother and accused of all manner of evil, as she was found guilty and condemned to death she cast a curse on the judge, the witnesses and the town. The legend of the witch still dominates the town and it commemorates, celebrates and relishes in its dark heritage. Or that's what people think. Unbeknown to the town the curse and the witch are still very much present and are only held in stead by an annual ritual performed by the witches descendent, and Norman's Uncle Mr Prenderghast (John Goodman) who also shares the family gift of being able to talk to the deceased.
Things are coming to a head though. Uncle Prenderghast fears he is close to his death and feels it's time to pass on the ritual but dies on the eve of its anniversary leaving young Norman to work it out and save the town all on his own. After a slow and tense build up Norman suddenly finds himself in the middle of a maelstrom; trying to contain the evil spirit of the witch, flee from the judge and seven witnesses who have all burst from the grave and keep all this from his family and the town. With hell about to break out though he is joined by his older cheerleading sister Courtney, his school friend Neil and Neil's older jock brother who all came out to look for him, and school bully Alvin who tagged along just to beat him up. Between them they have to come to terms with the fact that there may actually be something to Norman's gift and also put aside their differences to make sense of what is happening, find the witches grave and perform the ritual before the curse consumes the town.
Evil witches, curses, ghosts, bullying, mobs with pitchforks, zombies that lose limbs and are shot and a prevalent mood of mistrust and fear; Paranorman is a dark film full of dark themes but it's never overly oppressive or sinister. It's behaves like a classic children's fairy tale, painting scenes that aren't really what they seem and reducing the horror before it becomes too much. Like Scooby Doo on Zombie Island after introducing the traditional shambling scary looking zombies and after having an albeit slightly comical but still tense and dramatic chase we discover the zombies aren't actually the big bad baddies the group perceived them as being. They're actually full of regret and sorrow for what they did 300 years ago to the young Agatha Prenderghast (Jodelle Micah Ferland). They aren't out to massacre the town, they are cursed to eternal un-life until the small girl they condemned to death can find peace and they actually want to help Norman achieve this. The zombies really being good, Aggie like Norman and his uncle all being misunderstood, feared and rejected is all part of the over-arching narrative of acting on assumption and fearing that which one doesn't understand.
Eventually everything comes full circle and the citizens of Blithe Hollow see things how they really are; that with pitch forks and flaming torches ready to burn down the civic hall that they're more the monsters than the zombies, that Norman might actually be the hero with a special gift and the they should learn to tolerate and accept that which they don't understand. It's an old tale done before but here it's presented in a refreshingly original and vibrant way. With an emphasis on engaging dialogue the story of retains all the charm of an animated children's movie, with grittier social commentary and depth for the adult viewer to chew on.
As for the zombies; in so much as they're dead and reanimated that's really as far as it goes. They're not bad, they're not after brains or flesh and they don't really pose a real threat to anyone. They're reanimated because they're cursed and this curse only goes so far as to ensure their spirit can't move on and protects them from being destroyed by being pulled apart, or run over or even being shot, etc. They're still presented to the traditional zombie spec though, with ripped clothes, groans and dry dead skin where I did notice a slight blue tinge; a nod to Romero perhaps? There's also a nod to the comical and absurd side of the genre with many lighter b-movie moments occurring with and to the zombies. All are brilliantly executed and never forced, and they provide necessary and expected relief in a film aimed for the younger audience.
Produced by the Laika, the same stop-motion animated film team that created Coraline, the film shares many of the same intelligent and deviant qualities as well meticulous attention to detail, style and artistry and special mention must go to a final twenty minutes, which are as captivating, dramatic and visually exciting as anything I've probably ever seen, animated or not. Paranorman is sharp and witty with great pacing with a faultless narrative and strong interesting characters. There's never any dumbing down and the film stays true to its themes and visions throughout. Directors Sam Fell and Chris Butler have produced a beautiful and poignant experience and a children's film with real depth; I can't recommend it enough, 9/10.