"ParaNorman" A Missed Opportunity For Frightening Fun

“ParaNorman” is that rare film with no particular audience in mind – a bizarre exercise in misplaced morbidity and a fascination with the macabre in the context of teaching a lesson to its (presumably young) audience. I marveled at its beautiful stop-motion animation, particularly during a wonderful opening sequence that pays homage to old-school horror – scored with a creepy synth line, of course. But is this not a children’s movie? It’s so mercilessly grim, so obsessed with death, and so eager to paint each and every one of its characters as a victim that I was entirely fed up by the halfway point. The only noteworthy thing about the film is that it (implausibly) received a PG rating from the MPAA.

The film centers around a young outcast named Norman (voiced by Kodi Smit-McPhee) who can see and converse with the deceased. He spends the first few minutes of the film watching the aforementioned zombie film with his departed grandmother, but nobody believes in his ability. Norman’s family is displeased with his eccentricities, but not nearly as much as the outside world is. He has no friends other than the chubby hanger-on, Neil (Tucker Albrizzi), and these two loners hang out together by default. Norman’s days consist of being harassed by his sister, Courtney (Anna Kendrick), and chatting with dead folks on his way to and from school. Norman even talks to roadkill. Yes, it’s as depressing as it sounds.

In a particularly deflating scene, Neil convinces Norman to communicate with his late family dog, which was run over (and whose ghostly form reflects the accident) by an animal rescue vehicle. Neil notes whimsically that it was “tragic and ironic.” Hilarious, right? Eventually, at the prodding of his similarly outcast Uncle (John Goodman), Norman becomes involved in a quest to defeat a witch’s curse and, subsequently, a group of angry zombies. None of this makes any sense and it has very little to do with Norman’s ability to see dead people. Amazingly, the filmmakers are able to derive some sort of anti-bullying message from the story. Their hearts might be in the right place, but the tone of the piece is so unsettling that their point is entirely undermined.

Lots of children’s movies are dark. Most kids can handle the right amount of scariness. But what’s particularly disturbing about “ParaNorman” is that it makes no effort to walk the tried-and-true line between cute and disturbing (like the similarly animated “The Nightmare Before Christmas”) – threatening and non-threatening. Some of it borders on pitch black. I’ve seen actual horror movies with more levity. If the film had settled on just being goofy – which some of it is – much of the scariness might have evaporated. But by placing weighty, real world lessons aimed at kids in this specific cinematic world, the gloominess is only intensified.

Though the violence is exaggerated, it’s pervasive – the gorgeous art design could only distract me for so long. And since the nonsensical plotting is obviously aimed at children, there’s not enough to make it worthwhile for adults. However, it’s easy to appreciate the amount of work that went into the film and there are moments, remnants, of what the film could have been if it weren’t so intent on wearing down its audience. Unfortunately, “ParaNorman” is a film without an audience and word-of-mouth from incredulous parents should significantly shorten its lifespan at the box office.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★ out of ★★★★★ (Not So Good)

Release Date: August 17, 2012
Studio: Focus Features
Director: Sam Fell, Chris Butler
Screenwriter: Chris Butler
Starring: Casey Affleck, Tempestt Bledsoe, Alex Borstein, Jodelle Ferland, John Goodman, Bernard Hill, Anna Kendrick, Leslie Mann, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Elaine Stritch
MPAA Rating: PG (for scary action and images, thematic elements, some rude humor and language)