I don’t think I have encountered anyone who hasn’t given a considerable amount of thought as to what they would do if they found themselves in the midst of a zombie apocalypse. Myself? I have a mental inventory of creative weaponry, clothing, footwear (super important), rations, meeting locations and holdout areas which I consider to be instrumental to my survival. One thing that never crosses my mind, however, is that the undead may not be after my delicious brain juices — they could just be misunderstood thanks to their rotten flesh, garbled vocal chords and lumbering gait.
Enter Norman: a young boy who spends as much time conversing with the living as the dead. He is mocked, bullied and generally misunderstood by the citizens of Blithe Hollow until one night, where a witch’s curse raises the dead and he finds himself to be the only one who can stop her.
Visually, the film is an absolute treat. This is the second feature film developed by Laika Inc. (the studio who brought Coraline to the big screen in 2009) and ParaNorman uses a similar blend of stop motion and CGI to bring Blithe Hollow alive with vibrant detail. The visual style has fun juxtaposing the saturated, primary-colour driven palette with the dark, edgy, murky greens which Norman seems to surround himself with, and the latter half of the film delves down the route of the surreal. It’s great fun to witness, although I could see one or two terrified children leave the screening, frightened by some scenes.
When it comes to the story, however, the film seemed a little at odds with itself. While I do appreciate that a number of children’s films make a conscious effort to engage the otherwise-bored chaperones, I did get the distinct feeling that ParaNorman lost sight of the kid demographic at times in the process. The origin story of the witch is revealed to be an innocent young girl who was condemned to death in a Salem-esq trial for supposedly practicing witchcraft. The motivation behind her condemners (who return as undead zombies) is that they were scared of her, not that they were necessarily evil. Heavy stuff. In fact, by the end of the film, neither the group who sent a young girl to die, nor the witch who terrorises a town, nor the zombies, nor the angry mob who attack the zombies, nor the school bully, actually turn out to be evil at all. Which is an absolutely fine, if idealistic, conclusion to reach but it doesn’t half tie itself in knots getting there.
Still, there are some great moments to be found throughout. A couple of winks and nods to classic horror films such as Friday the 13th and Halloween are sure to grab the attention of the older crowd, and for the most part the voice acting in the film is spot on. Particular props have to go to John Goodman as Mr. Prenderghast — wheezing, coughing, preaching and just chewing the scenery as best as a voiceover actor can do. There is also a good amount of charm that comes from the mix of jump-scares and comedy, which makes the second act of the film feel almost like a classic episode of Scooby Doo (y’know, the ones without Scrappy).
It’s unfortunate that the screenplay gets so bogged down in clumsily-written exposition because I don’t think it can be stressed enough, ParaNorman looks fantastic. The film is at its best when it is moving along with the scares and laughs, poking fun at how people would react to the walking dead, and not when it is trying desperately to turn every villain into a sympathetic character. The ultimately-positive message of “don’t judge a book by its cover” is a good one that all kids could do with learning, but just be sure to tell it elegantly or they may not hear it at all.