When it comes to family entertainment, there are usually three types of paths a film will take. The first is one of complete pandering to children, using slapstick comedy and over-exaggerated characters to get as many cheap laughs out of the under-12 demographic with the knowledge that the parents have to be their whether they like it or not. A perfect example of this would be something like Ice Age: Continental Drift. The second path is along the lines of using simple stories and (somewhat) grounded characters to try to hit its audience’s heart as well as it’s funny bone. Generally, only companies like Disney and Pixar have been able to really do this well, but in recent years companies like Dreamworks and Illumination Entertainment have been edging in with movies like How To Train Your Dragon and Despicable Me. Last of all, we have movies that still tries to satisfy youngsters with slapstick, but also makes every effort to involve it’s older audiences with pop culture references and innuendo. It’s this last path that ParaNorman opts to take, and it does it better than any animated movie I saw in 2012. ParaNorman isn’t exactly groundbreaking, but it has a great balance of heart, laughs, and genre nods to give everyone something to enjoy.
A misunderstood boy takes on ghosts, zombies and grown-ups to save his town from a centuries-old curse.
Norman is a pretty standard plucky outsider that children’s movies so often use as their protagonist, only with one key difference; Norman can see dead people. Luckily for him, these dead people aren’t the terrifying shadows of tormented souls like those Haley Joel Osmund encountered in The Sixth Sense, but a broad assortment of ex-people who simply have something left on their to-do list before ascending (or descending). The funny thing about this to me is just how surprisingly morbid the movie’s tone is. There are a lot of scenes that play out as slapstick gags, even though they involve subject matter that would scar most children (i.e. Norman wrestling to pry a book from the hands of his rigor-mortis-stricken deceased uncle). I will say that I was impressed with how natural Kodi Smit-McPhee fit into the role though. After such depressing turns in The Road and Let Me In, the young actor deserved a bit of comedy for a change.
The supporting characters are all pretty standard, from the overweight best-friend-slash-ginger-american Neil (Tucker Albrizzi) to his ditzy, cheerleading sister (Anna Kendrick) to his parents that just don’t understand (Leslie Mann and Jeff Garlin). The stereotypical supporting cast didn’t really bother me as it is a kid’s movie, but I have to roll my eyes more than once with how lamely written Christopher Mintz-Plasse’s character, the bully Alvin, was for basically the entire movie. We get it, bullys are bullys, middle school sucks, blah blah blah… I don’t understand why a movie with this level of originality couldn’t have strayed a little from the beaten paths in it’s character types.
One of my favorite parts of the movie was just how many tidbits there were inserted every now and then for the benefit of older horror fans. Between Norman’s copy of Manos: Hands of Fate, his Halloween theme ringtone and Neil’s mask-wearing invite to play hockey, I felt like I was watching a movie made by people who actually cared about their material and weren’t just going through the motions to make a quick buck.
As the film gets closer to the end and leaves behind the boring, well-tread weird kid vs. bullies angle, it actually starts to build a lot of emotional weight. The revelation of how the legend of the witch’s curse came to be was uncharacteristically heavy material for a movie that is otherwise so light-hearted, but I felt that it offered an interesting twist on the cliche “Just be yourself” message that so many animated movies end up with.
One final note though, there’s one “Call Me Maybe”-esque revelation about Casey Afleck’s character, Mitch, made near the end of the movie that represents the first time I’ve ever heard a gay joke in a children’s movie. It’s a little gratuitous and feels almost like the writers just threw it in for shock value, but I’m interested whether people see it as casually homophobic or as a sign that homosexuality has advanced in our society’s acceptance to the point where it’s no longer absolutely taboo for animated entertainment.
The Verdict: 7.5/10 Superior
+ Broadly appealing material, great choice to watch with your kids if you have them
+ Refreshingly original concept with a message that doesn’t feel cliche
+ Horror references abound
– Some stereotypical characters and a bit of a weak first half
Tims Film Reviews: 90%
The Bishop Review: 4/5
The Frame Loop: 4/5
Cinematic Katzenjammer: 7.8/10
Dan the Man Movie Reviews: 7.5/10
Film Hipster: 70%
The Daily Rich: “Tremendously Satisfying”