Recently, a recognizable trend has emerged in animated films wherein the gothic and the supernatural become a means for youth to realign with reality and the living. The story of Norman (Kodi Smit-McPhee), a young suburban pre-teen who can see and speak to the dead, Chris Butler and Sam Fell's ParaNorman irrefutably smacks of a tone similar to that of Henry Selick's sensational Coraline, in which the title character also finds escape and adventure through a fantastical community of spooky others. Both films were also shot in 3D, but the technology rarely enhances Norman's bucolic small-town landscapes the way it consistently did the alternate dimension of evil "Other" parents, black-button eyes, and ghost children in Selick's film. And where Coraline dealt in daring, unhinged psychological issues involving adolescence and pre-adolescence, ParaNorman is safe, friendly, and more interested in paying lip service to certain sociological issues and issues of accepted film styles and structures.
From the outset, the film concerns itself with the aged preconceptions of the horror genre, as we're introduced to the quasi-titular character as he zones out in front of a zombie flick, the ghost of his grandmother (Elaine Stritch) gabbing and knitting on the couch behind him. Norman's ability, of course, makes him an outcast to nearly everyone, including his sister Courtney (Anna Kendrick), his parents (Jeff Garlin and Leslie Mann), and the Dizzee Rascal-loving school bully (Christopher Mintz-Plasse). And this is the norm, until he's introduced to his crazy hobo uncle (John Goodman), who shares his ability and has been keeping the evil spirit of a witch and her army of zombies at bay for years. Along with the introduction of Neil (Tucker Albrizzi), Norman's only real friend, the uncle's sudden death sets the film on its inevitable trajectory, involving Norman's attempts to keep the witch's spirit from overtaking his town. The predictability of the narrative, however, is essential to what Butler and Fell are getting at.
The central adventure that Norman, Courtney, Neil, and his dumb-jock brother, Mitch (Casey Affleck), embark on will be familiar to fans of darker, more outrageous children's movies, from The Witches to Ernest Scared Stupid. But the film's twist posits Butler and Fell's story as a radical plea for humanity, even in the face of our most monstrous fears; part of the narrative's backstory takes a cue from Arthur Miller's The Crucible and the Salem witch trials. The zombies that the witch unleashes upon the town are not flesh-hungry, but rather exhausted and desperate from years of being doomed as part of the community who murdered the young witch whose powers were immediately seen as a threat rather than a talent for true magic.
In this, ParaNorman smartly aligns itself with George Romero, with his largely despicable survivors, and recent horror satires like Tucker & Dale vs. Evil. When the zombies enter Norman's town, they're met with an onslaught of violence from the community, despite the noticeable lack of even a single arm being gnawed. In short, we're the villains and the filmmakers take enough care to consider and even actualize the rot of regret that has overtaken others who've put their crudest fears in front of their most basic humanity. It's a message with little grace and ample in its cheesiness, but it's nevertheless clever and at least mildly emotionally resonant by the time Norman faces off with the witch, who's now grown into a stereotypical one after years of banishment and bitterness.
Working with the talented DP Tristan Oliver and a brilliant team of designers and animators, the filmmakers have crafted an engaging entertainment with an ample amount of visual delights, but they ultimately choose the easy laugh and heavy-handed analogy over more focused character and story development. Mitch, Neil, and Courtney provide some memorable guffaws (the voice work is wontedly strong), but along with the familiar notes of the story itself, there's the familiar strain to be universally relevant while also being somewhat unique. In Norman, we can see any amount of young artists, perhaps not unlike Butler and Fell, inventing something unique and decidedly different in stories and genres that often run on the safety of their self-made expectations. The tagline for ParaNorman reads, "You Don't Become a Hero by Being Normal," and the film mostly lives up to that assertion, but only up to a point.