ParaNorman is a creepy kids film with a nice message delivered with about as much subtlety as a kick to the groin. Written and co-directed by Chris Butler, ParaNorman takes a simple premise about a boy who can see dead people and a town under a witch’s curse, and weighs it down with heavy issues and themes such as the effects of bullying and mob rule. Although Butler never loses the audience, he lacks the skill to continually keep the film interesting and entertaining while at the same time beating the audience over the head with its message.
The film, after a terrific opening having fun with late night horror movie tropes, opens by introducing the social outcast of the small New England town of Blythe’s Hollow – Norman Babcock (Kodi Smit-McPhee). Norman has the ability to see and talk with the dead, which of course no one including his parents (Casey Affleck, Leslie Mann), the local bully (Christopher Mintz-Plasse), or generic teenage sister (Anna Kendrick) believes.
The only one who thinks Norman might not be crazy is Norman’s chubby friend Neil (Tucker Albrizzi) who appears in the film mainly because in these types of stories the outcast always seems to have an overweight best friend. When his crazy uncle dies suddenly Norman finds himself tasked with saving the town by stopping the return of the witch (Jodelle Ferland) the town killed 300 years ago and has tried to rise from the grave every year on the anniversary.
The stop motion animation, design of the film, and 3D all work fine but are hardly memorable. And too many of the ideas presented in the film are too easily abandoned, including Norman’s ability to speak with a whole town of ghosts that simply disappear when they could offer helpful knowledge and support once the witch’s zombies rise from their graves.
I’m not sure who the target audience for the film is. This movie is certainly creepier than the similarly themed (but more consistently executed) Monster House, and is likely to scare young kids. Older children aren’t likely to be spooked by the horror but also aren’t likely to understand the references the film has fun spoofing and are also likely to feel talked down to as the film’s none-too-subtle message is repeated over and over again.
ParaNorman isn’t a bad film and you likely aren’t going to regret spending money to see it, but there’s little here that makes viewing it in the theater preferable to waiting until you can spend far less renting it on Blu-ray or DVD. Despite moments of brilliance, including that great opening sequence (that may have simply raised the bar too high for what was to follow), its heart being in the right place, and a good sense of humor, ParaNorman never quite comes together as well as I’d like. Still, for the right audience there is some fun to be had.