I envy humans. Their lives are so rich and full. Routines are broken, and basic urges can be resisted. One day, a person can be stalking around their haunt, snacking on derelict snack foods from the pantry, and the next day the very same person is out swimming in a pool or living in a new house. This might be why there are so many films made about humans, whether dead or alive. Today, I watched one of those films about people.
Let’s situate ParaNorman in context. It’s an animated film, albeit one whose animation is handcrafted rather than processed in computers. It was also made in the United States for wide audiences. Animated films for wide audiences in the United States follow a very narrow subset of film tropes: they are intended for children and star youthful protagonists with distant, dead, or terrible parents, their supporting casts are lined with broadly characterized bit players mined from set stereotypes, and they tend to have a dramatic three-act plot that is leavened by broad comedy.
ParaNorman fits the mould precisely. In addition, it slots into the gothic-comic stop motion niche in animated film. Corpse Bride, Coraline, Frankenweenie, and Wallace and Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit all established and defined this space. On a plot level, ParaNorman is unremarkable, in some ways adroitly conventional. In such a meticulous medium, however, details tend to matter more than generalities. It is in the details that this film pulls off a satisfying but incomplete triumph over its genre straitjacket.
Norman, a young boy living in the aptly named Blithe Hollow, Massachusetts has a different perspective on life than the average citizen. Namely, he can see ghosts. The town, whose Puritan founders were responsible for hanging a witch, now survives by commercializing its grisly past for the tourists. Considered a freak by everyone from his classmates to his own father, he lives a lonely life watching horror flicks with his deceased grandmother and stoically enduring his daily ridicule.
From this premise, the first-time writer Chris Butler (previous work includes art design for Coraline and Tarzan 2) sets up his plot as a narrative about fear and the long shadow cast by the sins of the past. It seems that the witch who was executed cursed her accusers. Norman’s strange and estranged uncle Mr. Prenderghast insinuates that the curse is real and that it is the young one with the spiky hair alone who can suppress it. Much of the running time is taken up by a tame zombie movie that makes up for its lack of horror with grotesque wit. There are some choice moments, the best of which involves the slow advance of zombies and a bag of chips. It truly comes alive, however, after a late shift in tone and emphasis that brings the whole affair to an oddly affecting conclusion. There are too many limp action sequences and tame scares that don’t work on seasoned hunters, but the pacing is overall well-balanced if not exactly brisk.
Visual and aural design are all impeccable. Each new set and situation reveals new wonders of production and puppetry. Characters are memorably constructed visually, their faces fluidly animated, the visual gags illustrated with panache. The final sequences are especially stunning. There is very little to fault in the overall presentation, as even the special effects are seamlessly integrated into the three-dimensional . LAIKA studios does not match their moody and dreamlike work on Coraline but this is by far the most rewarding aspect of ParaNorman.
I wish American mainstream animation could get over its apparent inability to consistently foster more than one story archetype. LAIKA studios has, however, pulled an original film out of a dusty template. The result dazzles the eye and pleases the intellect just enough to keep the ghosts of conventionality at bay.