ParaNorman is like Shaun of the Dead for kids. I can’t imagine a movie eleven year olds would like more. It’s as gruesome as the best fairy tales. In one moment Norman has to wrestle a book from the rigor mortised hands of a corpse, his recently deceased weird uncle. It’s a slapstick tour de force, with the poor boy momentarily tangled under the stiff as its giant tongue flops out of its mouth and unfurls across his face. “Gross!” A few kids in the audience gleefully exclaimed. I’m with ya, kids! Yuck.
While it playfully subverts the tropes of the family-strength horror movie, it also rides upon a serious and important critique of bullying. Is it subtle and original enough to be a kid-flick masterpiece? No. Is it good giddy fun nonetheless? Pretty much. Like many wanna-be blockbusters in the Dolby-cinema age, it loses all its playfulness at the bombastic climax, which would be excruciatingly bad—Michael Bay bad—if it wasn’t for the absolutely fantastic animation, which has to fight against the shrill-child voice acting, the unmoored direction, and the truly atrocious soundtrack music. But post-climax, it regains its tone and ends with some of its wittiest subversions.
The other main weakness might be the father character, who is one-note in conception and execution. Also, some of the minor characters don’t rise above their generic roles: the homely smart girl, the sassy black cop. However, other bit parts sparkle! Elaine Stritch voices the grandma ghost beautifully and without sentimentality. Alex Borstein chews the vocal scenary as a hammy pageant director. And mostly you’ll fall in love with the fat kid, voiced by the pitch-perfect Tucker Albrizzi. If only he’d been the main character at the climax! He’d have found highs and lows, softs and louds, lines to throw away and ones to bellow. There isn’t an uninteresting line-reading in him. Funny kid!
It’s definitely a message movie. A person who is different gets picked on by others who are either scared of him or who take advantage of the opportunity to gain social footing at the weirdo’s expense. Sometimes people bully because they think it’s the right thing to do. They believe they are encouraging the outliers to return to the fold (bullying as “pro-social norming,” the film-dad in this movie suppressing his son’s ability to talk to the dead, teen Mitt Romney’s forcibly cutting off that gay kids’ hair). Sometimes people bully to preserve the assumedly fragile status-quo (oppression as “tradition maintaining,” the puritanical judge of the film’s backstory sentencing the accused witch to hang, teen Mitt Romney’s forcibly cutting off that gay kids’ hair). But don’t worry! All that message stuff is buried deep under the zombies, ghosts, and hijinks. (It could have been buried a tad deeper to have come off more subtle and nuanced, but you won’t feel hammered to death by it, much.) You have to give a movie props for a pro-diversity message like this one’s. And maybe the next time some power-mad asshole tries to cut off some marginalized kid’s hair, the people around will step in to stop it because they saw ParaNorman at an impressionable age. And I’m Marie of Romania.
In the meantime, this flick is a good bet for your entertainment buck. Don’t take any really little kids to it, because it’s kind of scary. And don’t be afraid to go as kid-less adults—there were plenty in the crowd I went with, whooping it up with the young’uns. It’s better than any of the recent popcorn flicks for grown-ups—but then, that’s a pretty low bar.