Ever since “The Nightmare Before Christmas” there has been an inexplicable connection between stop-motion animation and horror motifs. Tim Burton has been responsible for most entries in this small but noticeable canon, but Laika has found an equally quirky yet more mainstreamed alternative in Chris Butler’s “ParaNorman.”
Norman (voiced by Kodi Smit-McPhee) can see dead people, namely the ghosts of his town, a Salem-inspired village named Blithe Hollow. His “gift” has made him the victim of bullying at school and because he can see his dead grandmother at home, his parents (Leslie Mann and Jeff Garlin) think he’s just acting out and can’t move on.
The story of the gifted and misunderstood outsider perfectly overlaps both horror and family film tropes, but in spite of the ghosts, witches and undead, “ParaNorman” is significantly less scary than Laika’s previous feature, “Coraline.” The creature-feature vibe adds character and a distinctive vibe to what’s otherwise a story geared toward kids.
As you might imagine, Norman’s ability to see and talk to the dead turns into everyone’s last hope. Norman’s estranged relative Mr. Prenderghast (John Goodman), who shares Norman’s gift, passes a critical responsibility onto Norman: keep the witch, who cursed the people of Blithe Hollow years ago after being condemned to die, from raising the dead.
With the unrequested help of his new friend, Neil (Tucker Albrizzi), a pretty dumb kid but one who’s thick-skinned and ever cheerful, Norman sets out to uncover the truth to what happened in Blithe Hollow years ago and fulfill his responsibility. His bratty sister (Anna Kendrick) and Neil’s brother, Mitch (Casey Affleck), also get wrapped up in the adventure.
“ParaNorman’s” top highlight is without a doubt the visual artistry. With the assistance of computers, stop-motion animation can look absolutely incredible, and when you consider the multitude of supernatural occurrences in the film, it could not have been easy to execute. The general design of the production has this excellent abstract and asymmetrical style that works really well, especially in the character design. Stop-motion has always opted for caricature as opposed to realism, but the Cubist slant of “ParaNorman” stands out among Burton-inspired claymation.
Of all these aforementioned qualities, however, none suggests a unique family film experience or gives reason to elevate “ParaNorman” ahead of other horror-themed movies for kids. Helping “ParaNorman” entertain all-ages audiences is its clever incorporation of actual horror movie techniques and homages to everything from B-movie horror to ’80s slashers. These nuggets are tastefully and sharply included rather than stuffed in, which isn’t hard considering the film is a breeze to watch.
And you can’t discredit the heart needed to make a family film resonate. “ParaNorman” uses a simplistic delivery method for its themes of what it means to be different and how that should or shouldn’t impact how you treat others, but while it’s overt in that sense and arguably even tailors its plot to send that message, the message itself is a fundamental question of human nature. In today’s movies, revenge is so often a substitute for a more complicated character motivation, but Butler breaks it down and addresses it in a way that’s appropriate and easy to understand/consider.
Much of “ParaNorman” at a surface level lacks originality, but Butler and co-direct Sam Fell make up for it with rich visual detail, clever references and a sincere, amusing wit. It offers something for kids, parents and horror fans of all ages, all while going down pretty smooth. The effort behind this film offers all the more evidence why animated filmmakers are by far the smartest and most creative among other genres.
Directed by Chris Butler, Sam Fell
Written by Chris Butler
Starring: (voice) Kodi Smit-McPhee, Tucker Albrizzi, Anna Kendrick, Casey Affleck