1 hour, 33 minutes
“ParaNorman,” the new stop-motion animated horror-lite film has everything going for it. It’s fun, well animated, engaging, even a little scary.
There’s just one problem. It was released in August instead of the blindingly obvious October. Why am I watching this movie about a boy who fights zombies and witches to save his little New England town right now? I’m still trying to hold on to the last vestiges of summer, and there it is, the high point of fall, washing over me in mutely-colored 3-D. That I was still charmed by this little goth ghost story, despite being reminded of how little warm weather actually remains, is testament to the quality of the film.
“ParaNorman” tells the story of Norman, a goofy little geek of a boy, trying to make his way in the dog-eat-dog world of middle school. Most kids of Norman’s ilk — staying up late watching old horror movies, waking up to a vintage hand-from-the-grave alarm clock, and carrying zombie action figures to school — might be described as loners.
Unfortunately for Norman, being alone is never a problem. The latest recipient of a talent that runs in his family, Norman can see and communicate with the dead. And they’re everywhere. Walking to school is an endless litany of “hello, how are you’s” to the recently and not so recently deceased. And when he gets home, there’s his grandmother, waiting to watch a movie with him on the couch, spectrally knitting a ghostly sweater. It’s not so bad, really, if Norman didn’t have to deal with the living. If it’s not the bullies at school, it’s his oh-so-17-year-old sister rolling her eyes and sighing at every move Norman makes.
This all comes to a head when Norman’s creepy uncle dies, entrusting him with a book and a 300-year-old secret. Once a year, to save the town, an ancient witch must be placated with a story, read at her grave, lest she rise, bringing the reanimated corpses of seven cursed town elders with her. Naturally, Norman’s uncle dies before passing on all the pertinent information, such as the site of said grave. Before you know it, all heck is breaking loose. A crazed witch in the sky, a killer storm, the walking dead, and an angry mob. Norman’s got his hands full.
A good part of what makes “ParaNorman” work is its sweetness. It’s not candy-coated, necessarily. It’s not for little kids, but unlike Tim Burton’s stop-motion films, which I like, by the way, there’s very little darkness. The zombies are funny, the witch is a little scary, but ultimately sweet and sad, and Norman is just a nice little kid. Even the bully in the story is just kind of acting out a pre-defined role. He’s not bad, just labeled. If there were villains to be had, they would be the townfolk, blindly acting out of fear, never stopping to consider the consequences of their actions. For a fairly clever and subtle movie, this trope, that fear-based decision making is flawed, is hit upon so often they might as well have had a flashing neon sign announcing, “Theme of the Movie!”
If I had a complaint, and, really, there is very little to complain about in a movie like this, it would simply be that I don’t know who the movie is made for. It’s too scary for little kids, and high-schoolers would probably think it too dorky or sincere. Older people aren’t going to see it. I can just imagine my father-in-law’s reaction to seeing a trailer. “Para... what? What the hell is this? They’ll put anything on these days!”
I know the online-cinegeek-nerdosphere has flipped for it, so maybe they’re the target audience. Thirty-something single males, living in their parent’s basement, blogging with one hand while playing World of Warcraft with the other.
It’s too bad “ParaNorman” is unlikely to make much of a splash beyond that niche group, but it brings me back to my original complaint. Why release this movie in the summer? This movie screams Halloween. And, if you actually put this movie out at the appropriate time, you’d be much more likely to attract those people who had no interest in seeing “Saw 12” and just wanted something fun. “ParaNorman” deserves to be seen by more people, if only to justify the enormous amount of work that went into making it. I, for one, had a ghoul of a great time.
See, that kind of pun just doesn’t work in August. Who knows, maybe it’ll get a Halloween re-release and they’ll scare up an audience. That was a little better.
“ParaNorman” is rated PG-13 for cartoony horror.
Chris Jenness is a freelance graphic designer, artist and movie buff who lives in Nikiski.