A charming, fun look through the world of the creepy crawlies,”ParaNorman” is a kids’ movie with bite.
I mean that literally in some cases: How many (mostly) family-friendly flicks do you know that feature zombies menacing people and also reference “Halloween,” “Friday the 13th,” and the “Dawn of the Dead” remake, not to mention ’70s grindhouse flicks?
Norman (voice of Kodi Smit-McPhee) talks to dead people. Yes, like That Other Kid, and like That Other Kid he is something of an outcast in his hometown, which was the site of the Salem-style lynchings of witches in the Puritanical days. He speaks most frequently to his grandmother (Elaine Strich), whose cause of death we don’t know. Later, we learn that ghosts are the spirits of people whose business on Earth is not yet complete, and Grandma, in particular, made a promise to always look out for her grandchildren.
Norman is bullied by Alvin (Christopher Mintz-Plasse, playing against type) and ignored by most everyone else. But when a distant family member (voiced by John Goodman) tells Norman he’s burdened with a horrific secret, Norman is responsible for saving his town from the clutches of the witch it once victimized.
“ParaNorman” carries several themes, most of which the film handles deftly. The main theme of bullying and victimization (and the overlooking of both by adults) is there, of course, and there’s quite a nifty little turn where the victim becomes the bully that is handled well.
Here’s where things get interesting: There is also a subtle undercurrent of sexuality in the film. It’s neither overt nor particularly in-your-face, but several of these kids are at an age where they are interested in romantic relationship. And there’s one joke I still can’t believe made it into the final film, though I’d argue it wasn’t as terrible as some others may. It flew over the heads of my own children — aged 7, 5 and 3 — and those who would get the joke should know enough for it to not be all that shocking.
By embracing its inner PG, “ParaNorman” sacrifices a little family friendliness for artistic integrity; the zombies themselves are rendered cartoonishly enough to not traumatize (again, my own kids, who recently had a scare from a bedtime story, were only mildly spooked and as I write this they are soundly sleeping just more than an hour after the film ended). There are a few gags borrowed from horror flicks at which some parents might be appalled; to me they were charming.
With a host of fun voice performances including Anna Kendrick (of the “Twilight” films), Leslie Mann, Casey Affleck and Jeff Garlin, there’s just enough star power to not be overwhelming. With the possible exception of Goodman, none of the actors overpower their characters with their star personas.
The stop-motion animation is spectacularly rendered, its simplicity a brilliant stroke in establishing both tone and mood. No other medium would have worked like the one these filmmakers chose.
“ParaNorman” is among my favorite movies of the year to date. As a horror fan, it’s the movie I’ve longed to share with my kids since my oldest son was born 7 years ago. If you are ready for your own kids to get into scary movies, it’s a solid primer for them. If you don’t … well, I can’t really help you all that much. Maybe you should stay away from this one.