I love a good underdog story, especially when they can talk to the dead.
This little Laika Studios gem has been a favorite of mine since it first graced Cartoon Network back when I was a teenager. It’s a scary-themed but not frightening film intended for younger audiences, but the story is so well done that adults can enjoy it’s feel-good message of friendship and acceptance easily. My biggest critique of this film, directed by Sam Fell and Chris Butler and available on Netflix as of this week, is the seemingly shallow understanding of justified rage vs. bullying. But I’ll get into that.
In this delightfully animated stop motion feature, 11-year-old Norman (Kodi Smit-McPhee) can talk to the dead. Viewers later find that this talent isn’t limited to ghosts, but included zombies, too, which is pretty cool. Unfortunately, his sister, Courtney (Anna Kendrick), and father (Jeff Garlin) aren’t half of accepting of Norman’s dead-talk as his mom (Leslie Mann), and even she’s skeptical.
At school, things aren’t any easier for Norman, who is bullied by the very unchimpmunk-like Alvin (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) and seems to have no friends. Thankfully, another bullied boy, Neil (Tucker Albrizzi), decides Norman is exactly the kind of person he wants to be friends with.
After the death of Norman’s eccentric hermit of an uncle, Mr. Prenderghast (John Goodman), Norman is tasked with the momentous task of keeping back the 300-year-old curse placed on the town by a witch who was tried and killed there. With the help of his Neil, Alvin(I would have preferred Neil’s other friend, Salma (Hannah Noyes), to have taken that spot), Courtney, and Neil’s brother, Mitch (Casey Affleck), Norman must find the witch’s grave and read from a fairytale to keep the dead from rising.
Of course, he messes it up, and goes on a big adventure, during which he meets the witch and comes to find that she is an 11-year-old girl with a talent like Norman’s, and she’s related to him (distantly and not directly). Aggie Prenderghast (Jodelle Ferland) was sentenced to death by seven Puritans 300 years earlier for talking to the dead. The zombies of those who sentenced her now regret their decision, and, with the help of Norman, they teach the town to be kind to those who are different.
Really, you don’t see that twist coming; it’s not anything mind-bending or completely surprising, but the setup is solid and the delivery is sincere. What’s great about stop-motion like this is the range of emotion available to the faces of the characters, a type of exaggeration, originality, and skill that isn’t nearly as present in other forms of 3D animation. This is especially evident when one of the zombies drops a floppy ear next to Norman’s face as he hides under furniture–the ear looks squishy and clay-like, so not quite a cartilage-based human ear, but it really ups the disgust factor of a body part falling of, and I love it.
So, while I love the facial expressions and gentle, natural-but-exaggerated movements of the characters interacting, I can’t let this one thing slide. One thing that movies about acceptance almost always slide into their dialogue is a little piece about being the bigger person. For Norman, he learns throughout the movie that, even if the entire town of adults want to kill him, it’s better to be kind. Even if he is bullied day in and day out, and his parents are unwilling to accept him, it’s better to be kind.
Sure. I love kindness. That makes sense. But when Norman speaks to Aggie, he tells her she’s a bully exactly like those who hurt her. Norman tells a little kid who was murdered by a bunch of self-righteous adults that, by bringing them back to life to let them be beat up, she is exactly like them. Um, no.
As I said, very common thread: in order for others to accept you, you must accept them, and that sometimes means walking away when they do terrible things to you. It’s about dealing with it because, if you are kind, they might change their mind! Except, in real life, that doesn’t usually happen, if it ever does. For Norman to belittle Aggie’s experience and pretend like he really knows what she went through is a little heartwrenching when the rest of the movie was so good. It’s like they didn’t know what to say at the end, like all the build up of acceptance had to have some neat little bow where it is applied to everyone, even those who commit atrocities. Boo.
Other than that, ParaNorman is a truly awesome movie, and, if you’re like me and disagree with the sentiment of the ending, it’s a great time for parents to discuss with their children why Norman’s assertions may not always be the case.
Keep it creepy,