It’s a difficult thing to look at a movie like ParaNorman, because I’m not even sure who its target audience is. It’s been billed as a children’s movie, and deals with a lot of themes that will benefit children more than adults, but it is built like its intention is to entertain the teenagers and adults, not the 10-year-old who needs to see the latest 3D adventure. This isn’t really an adventure film; it’s much more content with subdued drama.
The basic idea of ParaNorman is that the lead character, Norman (Kodi Smit-McPhee), can speak with the dead. If someone decides not to enter the afterlife, they hang around Earth as a ghost. He can see and talk to them, but since nobody else can, Norman becomes an outcast. He also really likes horror movies, and is somewhat of an introvert already. Okay, I’m guessing you can see where this is going. I’m also guessing you’re going to be wrong once you actually see the film, because it throws enough story twists in to always keep you guessing what’s going to happen next. I thought I had ParaNorman figured out a couple of times, but I was wrong.
Through relatively convoluted circumstances involving a book, a witch and the town founders, zombies begin walking again, and it’s up to Norman and a group of other characters — his only friend, Neil (Tucker Albrizzi); Neil’s buff brother, Mitch (Casey Affleck); Norman’s sister, Courtney (Anna Kendrick); and the head bully (Christopher Mintz-Plasse, playing against type) — to put a halt to this whole “walking dead” thing.
You won’t know where the film is going. You’ll think you will, but you’ll be surprised at least twice, if not more than that, depending on your familiarity with zombie movies. It’s kind of refreshing to see what’s ostensibly a kid’s movie turn out to have enough thought put into its plot to keep anyone guessing and entertained. And ParaNorman certainly does have a lot of thought. It’s not lacking in laughs, either, as this is quite the humorous little movie, at times playing out like a satire of zombie and horror films. Other instances have it play things straight, and they’re genuinely scary.
It’s also nice to see a film like this one take its time developing its characters, their relationships, and its tone. All of the people in this main group are well-rounded, and you understand how they interact with each other before the zombies rise from the grave. The horror-comedy tone is also well-established. We don’t just straight into the action with ParaNorman. While that might not satisfy some of the younger audience members, parents and older adolescents will be thankful.
ParaNorman looks fantastic, too, blending stop-motion animation with some that’s computer animated to give it a unique look. It has been animated by the same studio that did Coraline, so you kind of know what to expect when it comes to the visuals. This film used a new technique for creating facial features, and it pays off in dividends. These faces look incredible, and the film is worth seeing for those alone. They’re more expressive than pretty much any other stop-motion project ever.
Where ParaNorman goes wrong is in its ending, which is a huge anti-climax. It’s built up as this great big thing, and then once you see it, you feel disappointed. I get the intent here — most of the film is drama anyway, so having a more subdued climax makes sense — but when there are these big set-pieces and the bad guy is built up to be so strong, and then it just doesn’t add up to anything substantial, it’s hard to not feel a little bit let down.
Some of the dialogue also feels a little bit easy and simple, especially with how complex the rest of the film is. Part of me liked this, as two of the lead characters are 11-year-old kids, and that’s similar to how 11-year-old kids talk, but that’s not an excuse for everyone else. Some characters are also walking clichés — well-developed clichés, but when you get down to it, nothing more than that. The lunkhead jock and the popular cheerleader both come to mind right away.
It has some good voice acting, though, which is a plus. Kodi Smit-McPhee’s really high-pitched whine didn’t work in The Road, but it’s effective here. Seeing Christopher Mintz-Plasse play the bully was a nice change, although I’m not sure if it quite worked all the way considering his voice is quite recognizable and doesn’t really fit with the way the character was designed. As the clichés, Anna Kendrick and Casey Affleck do fine. Tucker Albrizzi, easily the youngest of the main cast, gets the second most lines, and does a good job with them.
ParaNorman is an animated children’s movie that’s going to be more enjoyable for adults and older kids than it will for the ones of an age similar to its lead character. It takes its time to get going, is comfortable with conversations and silence to let the tone and horror sink in, and while it does have its share of action, it’s not a start-to-finish thrill ride. It has a weak ending and some lackluster dialogue, but it’s worth seeing for the animation alone. That a good film was built around this animation is fantastic.