ParaNorman is a 2012 stop-motion animated film about a lonely boy who can see and speak with the dead, though obviously, no one believes him. When a centuries old curse puts the town in terrible danger though, he has a chance to save the day, with a little help from friends.
ParaNorman is an odd little film, but in the most satisfying way. With colorful characters and a clever story, there’s a lot to like, especially its art design and attention to detail. This is a great looking movie. Quirky and full of wonderful visual touches, the film is a charming and entertaining children’s story that didn’t quite become the success it should have, though to be fair, The Dark Knight Rises was still fresh in theaters and going up against the Bat is always going to leave you in trouble.
From Laika, the same animation studio behind Coraline, The Boxtrolls, and the more recent Kubo and the Two Strings, ParaNorman is a decidedly macabre tale in description as the story focuses mostly on the dead, but its presentation and energy are anything but. Even with zombies and ghosts heavily featured throughout, it’s never a scary movie, the tone and animation keeping this more on the fun side than frightening, though with Laika steering the ship, you know for sure some heartstrings get tugged.
The story centers on a small boy named Norman (Kodi Smit-McPhee) who is sort of an outcast at school, bullied and made fun of. He’s not close with his family, spending most of his time alone. He has one good friend, an overweight boy named Neil Downe (Tucker Albrizzi), who finds strength in his relationship with Norman, a fellow ridiculed boy that is wholly misunderstood. The thing with Norman though is that he he has a special gift, and it ain’t adding numbers or playing the piano or some other prodigy skill. No, Norman can see ghosts. And he talks to them as well. Waht’s more, they are all over the place, clear as day to him, including his grandmother (Elaine Stritch) who sits on the living room sofa. You can imagine, as no one else can see them, Norman’s “awareness” of them causes some curious looks or worse from those who simply see the boy as a little off.
Directed by Chris Butler and Sam Fell, ParaNorman, besides its clever title, has a number of stirring set pieces and truly creative animated moments that are often wildly imaginative. These are especially true as the film steams towards its finale of course as Norman faces, well . . . that’s the twist that makes this so smart so I won’t spoil it here. But I will mention Mitch (Casey Affleck), Neil’s older brother, a character throughout the film who is the typical jock, even sparking the affections of Norman’s older sister Courtney (Anna Kendrick), but, as it turns out, is revealed to be gay, which is handled with such ease and casualness, it makes for a simple, genuine moment that reveals how a movie about tolerance and acceptance is willing to go all the way with its theme. It’s a well-earned moment.
But before all that happens, there is a sensational moment to start the film. It’s a wonderfully animated sequence that follows Norman as he walks to school. Alone on the streets with his school bag on his back, he walks along the sidewalks seemingly talking to himself, saying hello to people who are not there. He moves about as if the lonely roads are crowded with activity, speaking as if he’s seeing something we aren’t. In fact he is. After he spots a raccoon carcass on the road, he approaches it as if it were still alive, even petting the air. He gets disconcerting looks from the neighbors. But as the camera swings in and swoops tightly around his head (an music rises), what we finally see, and what he always sees, are the ghosts unseen by everyone else.
These green-tinted apparitions are a friendly lot, happy to see Norman, the only living person who knows they are there, and what we soon come to realize is that they are actually his only real friends, save for Neil. What makes this moment special is how it transitions from the pastoral neighborhood where Norman lives to the bustling town square where he walks to school. As he moves farther away from home, the ghosts disappear again and are replaced by actual townspeople and here we see a dramatic shift in Norman. Once appearing alone with only his ghost friends visible, he is upbeat, skipping, head up and happy. But in the city, crowded with real people, he is sunken, shoulders low, head lower and eyes down, cowering. It reveals much and signals a theme that will come more into play later.
This whole moment is layered in a sentimental little piece of music by film composer Jon Brion that is unlike the rest of the score. A gentle, somewhat melancholy tune with a splash of hope that feels nothing like an opening song for a children’s animated movie. And that’s another thing that makes this special. As most big budget animated movies go big at the start to try and grab attention, ParaNorman begins with curiosity rather than volume. That says a lot. It’s a great moment.