A Little Medium, by David Bax
Chris Butler and Sam Fell’s ParaNorman is a new stop-motion 3D film assembled by some of the crew behind 2009’s Coraline. Because of that, I was already optimistic when I went into the screening. Yet it proved to be such an exciting, hilarious and moving experience, it still turned out to be the most pleasant surprise of the year thus far.
Norman is a young boy in a small New England town who is ostracized not only by the kids at school but by his own family, either because they don’t understand him, like his mom and sister or because they don’t even want to, like his dad. Norman does have a number of friends, however, because he has the ability to see and talk to ghosts. One night, when the curse of a witch burned at the stake centuries ago brings havoc to the town, Norman’s gift is all that can save the people who have never accepted him.
Any person who grew up being different and tending toward the company of one’s self will find her or his experiences intimately recreated in ParaNorman. Yet the film doesn’t stop there. It touches on the ways in which all kids feel insecure around each other and inconsequential around adults. There are scenes where Norman tries to explain the supernatural goings-on to adults and it’s not just that they don’t believe him. In a way that is evocatively reminiscent of real childhood, they don’t even listen to him.
This isn’t simply a tale of prepubescent angst, though. It’s also a rollicking adventure film. There are car chases, foot chases, climbs to the top of towers and inter-dimensional showdowns, all of which kept a smile on my face in a way that reminded me of the good parts of being a kid. Furthermore, it’s presented in crisp, breathtaking and enveloping 3D. It’s one of the rare cases of a wholly justified use of the technology.
Butler and Fell use old-school, schlocky horror cinema as an inspiration right from the very first scene (in which Norman watches an old-school, schlocky horror film). This preoccupation with death, darkness and dismemberment leads to some of the most delightfully macabre humor you’re likely to find in an animated film. The almost flippant way in which the film deals with death was unforeseen by me but refreshing and exceedingly comedic.
In regards to humor, though, there is one notable misstep in ParaNorman. The film contains a comedic motorcycle cop who so embodies the “sassy black lady” stereotype that I kept expecting it to be trumped or dissected. It is not.
That lone false note aside, the film is not only funny and thrilling (and even a little scary), it’s touching and insightful. The climax is intense not only in its imagery and danger but in its emotions. After an abrupt and authentic twist in the story, Norman comes to realizations about the world and the people in it that are not only important things for a child to hear but could do a lot of good to many adults as well. If that’s not enough to get you to see ParaNorman, I’ll remind you that it also has really cool-looking zombies.