ParaNorman (2012) sets up nicely and pays off poorly. It’s a visual delight throughout (it’s made through stop-motion Claymation), but it gives up the peculiar quirks of its first third for a standard and unmoving action resolution, complete with a preachy and on-the-nose message that was more effective during the more subtle, certainly stiller, opening moments.
The story revolves around Norman (voice of Kodi Smit-McPhee), a preteen who can see and talk with ghosts. This is not troubling to Norman in itself (the ghosts are relatively friendly and this ability gives him extra time with his grandmother [Elaine Stritch] who expired a number of years ago), but it does ostracize him from his practical father (Jeff Garlin) and aloof older sister (Anna Kendrick) (his mother [Leslie Mann] is more understanding), and gets him ridiculed and bullied at school, particularly by Alvin (Christopher Mintz-Plasse), a dumb bother who kills flies and demands Norman speak to them. Norman’s colleagues should be more considerate; they do live in a town with a supernatural bent, a New England hamlet that was the site of an 18th–century witch trial. The school is even putting on a pageant to celebrate the 300th anniversary of the hanging of its witch, the gruesome visage of which (witch?) is sold to tourists on key chains and coffee mugs.
These introductory moments are the best in the film as the interesting clay characters interact behind a stylistic autumn setting (everyone in this world is angular or bulbous: Norman has a rectangle of skyward reaching hair, his sister should have her hips checked out for elephantiasis, and his mother looks like Olive Oyl swallowed a bowling ball). For all the supernatural effects to come, I’ll remember most a red sky of dusk enjoyed by children walking home from school. ParaNorman distinguishes itself in the rich detail that informs its early scenes. I was specifically tickled by an orthopedic brace on a portly teacher’s arm, which added an element of realism and exaggeration. A lot of its humor comes from these details (I also enjoyed the reveal of character divulging in the ancient ritual of hormone-heavy but material-starved preteen boys in the pausing of his mother’s workout tape at just the right moment) and so does the story’s compassion-for-the-strange message.
There are a lot of powerfully subtle ways the movie suggests Norman’s hurtful shunning that are easily understood by audiences of all ages. A casual remark will elicit a sad reaction from Norman, or his schoolmates will behave differently in his presence. These things hurt Norman deeply, but from the beginning he isn’t ashamed of who he is because he understands he can’t do anything to change it, nor would he want to. I hoped against hope that the movie would continue in this vein, like a Claymation Lars and the Real Girl (2007) for children, but sadly, the movie has to pay the bills and the action-driven, and relatively soulless, second half gets started all too quickly.
The town is cursed by the witch it hung all those years ago and is invaded by zombies, and only Norman, who has the ability to speak (and therefore reason) with the undead, can save the day. Flanked by his friend, sister, her oblivious (and naturally uninterested as it turns out) crush (Casey Affleck), and Alvin, Norman traverses the town like Scooby’s gang (there’s even a reference to meddling kids), eluding monsters and discovering secrets of the terrible curse. Not only is the action not inventive, but the characters we were getting to know so well pause indefinitely in their development and become types. The movie never stops being a joy to look at or ceases to keep our attention, but it was predicated by such a sweet prologue, it was disappointing to find that the prologue was predicating a different movie, one we didn’t get to see.
It’s as if the movie lost its nerve and thought that its audience couldn’t sit still through a movie in which the fireworks are more internal. I’ve found younger audiences, thoughtful ones anyway, are as attentive to good storytelling as adults and only reject movies when they’re being pandered to (which ParaNorman, so effectively quiet in its message early on, does in spades in its last third).
The movie’s preoccupations certainly are more advanced than most kids’ movies (there’s plenty about sexuality, and the whole enterprise is surprisingly necrophilic with an unusual obsession with all things dead), and it’s a shame its narrative structure didn’t remain that way. There’s a supernatural bluegrass song by the White Stripes that plays over the end credits that adequately synthesizes the feelings of the movie’s opening, “Little ghost, little ghost,” it goes. “One I’m scared of the most. Can you scare me up a little bit of love?” ParaNorman started out as a movie that could inspire something as unusual and lovely as the idea of supernatural bluegrass, but it turned into something as much in search of a brain as the monsters it presents.