I am doing the 31 Days of Horror Challenge. Every day in October, I will watch a different horror film I have never seen before and write about it here on the blog.
It’s rare to find a family film that doesn’t condescend to youngsters while alienating parents. Pixar has built a successful business model off appealing to the entire family and not catering to the lowest common denominator. Unfortunately, they are the exception to the rule. Perhaps Laika Entertainment, the Oregon-based production company that gave us the superior Coraline in 2009 is the next hope in saving family films from idiocy and random silliness? ParaNorman certainly seems to point in that direction.
Norman (voiced by Kodi Smit-McPhee) is a middle-schooler living in Blithe Hollow, Massachusetts. He’s small, his unruly hair sticks straight up, and he claims to have the ability to see and speak to ghosts. It’s this last bit of information that makes him a target for Alvin (voiced by Christopher Mintz-Plasse), a practically illiterate bully. Norman’s ability is also a source of tension in his home as his father (voiced by Jeff Garlin) and mother (voiced by Leslie Mann) argue about what Norman claims he can do. While his mother claims he’s just a sensitive boy, his father worries that Norman will turn out like his crazy Uncle Prenderghast (voiced by John Goodman), a loner who lives in a shack overlooking the town.
But it turns out that Norman actually can communicate with the dead and it’s this ability that causes Prenderghast to seek him out. It turns out that Prenderghast has protected the town from a curse placed on it by a witch 30 years ago. In failing health, Prenderghast wants Norman to take over his duty as town protector. But before Norman can be filled in on all the details, Prenderghast dies of a heart attack and the witch’s curse is unleashed, with zombies invading the town and only Norman, backed by a small band of friends, family, and enemies can save the day.
Don’t let the fact that this is a family movie fool you, ParaNorman is a horror film. From the grotesque design of the ghosts and zombies to the apocalyptic imagery as the curse is unleashed to the truly tragic back-story of the witch, writer/directors Chris Butler and Sam Fell respect the genre elements. The film may not be scary, but it does understand that the threats represented by the witch and—more importantly—the quick to act and slow to think townspeople are played straight.
At the same time, this is a very funny character comedy with a nice, understated message about how easy it is to bully those who are different from others. Despite his soft-spoken manner and tender heart, Norman is a nut for horror films, watching zombie movies with his grandmother and collecting horror art and knick-knacks. As a bully, Alvin is rather pathetic (one nice gag has him trying to deface a bathroom stall but having to cross his name out several times because of misspellings). It is implied that—as kids actually behave—he is only able to bully Norman because he’s further down the food chain than Alvin.
The filmmakers also have fun with the hypocrisy of a town that has built a tourist industry out of its history of witch trials (Blithe Hollow certainly seems like a stand-in for Salem) without realizing just how ugly that history is. You would think if a kid with Norman’s abilities would fit in anywhere, it would be a town that caters to tourists interested in the occult. But the poor way Norman is treated just highlights the cynicism at the heart of so many tourist traps.
Butler and Fell aren’t just tourists in the horror genre. They may be comfortable with the comedic elements of their story and characters, but they show off an understanding of the horror genre that goes beyond surface level. There are nods to everything from Halloween to Romero’s zombie films to Young Frankenstein to The Frighteners. They even manage a small casting coup by bringing in genre favorite Jodelle Ferland to voice the witch. Anyone familiar with this young performer’s career will immediately understand the cleverness of such a move.
ParaNorman is the type of family film there should be more of. It’s appropriate for all ages—including the parents who are consistently underserved by cynical studio cash-ins. It’s also a great gateway into the horror genre for children. If I had a kid, it’s a film I would be thrilled to introduce them to.
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