Perhaps it’s the tactile quality of the models, or the slightly unnatural way in which they appear to move. Whatever the reason, stop-motion animation has often leant itself to children’s films with a slightly darker, stranger, or more gothic inclination; movies like Corpse Bride and The Nightmare Before Christmas that mix family values with frights. ParaNorman, from directors Sam Fell and Chris Butler is latest film to be cut from the same kind of clay, and may be the scariest of the lot. But kids who can handle the bumps should find much to love in this beautifully animated ramshackle parcel, one that’s packed full of detail, humour and positive messages for children and grown-ups alike.
Set in the quiet town of Blithe Hollow, Massachusetts, ParaNorman follows the reluctant adventure of Norman Babcock, a spiky haired eleven-year old voiced by Kodi Smit-McPhee (Let Me In). A quiet boy, Norman likes horror movies, but isn’t popular in school, and spends more time talking to his grandmother (Elaine Stritch; 30 Rock) then he does to his parents (Leslie Mann; This Is 40 and Jeff Garlin; WALL-E). This mightn’t be so strange, were it not for the fact that his grandmother is dead. She’s not the only ghost Norman can talk to, either. He sees them everywhere. And although he handles it better than Haley Joel Osment, it’s not exactly making his life a blast.
There is one other person who shares Norman’s dubious gift: his uncle, Mr. Prenderghast (voiced enthusiastically by John Goodman; Flight). The town hermit, Norman is forbidden from speaking to his reclusive relative, but finds that he has little choice in the matter when Prenderghast comes seeking him out with a warning: Norman is the only one who can prevent an evil witch – hung by townsfolk some three centuries prior – from coming back to life. All he has to do is read from a book at her burial site. Unfortunately, these things rarely go to plan, and before long the citizens of Blithe Hollow find themselves beset by a hoard of shambling zombies and one very cranky crone.
As with almost all clay-mated motion pictures, the level of detail in ParaNorman is on its own enough to recommend it. From Norman’s slippers to his mothers perfume bottle to the sunken eye sockets of the reanimated dead, everything here has been meticulously designed by hand. This kind of tangibility gives ParaNorman an endearing quality that movies animated in computers, or using traditional 2-D methods, can never quite seem to achieve. It’s as if you can sense the artist’s affection for their craft, in each and every frame that flickers by.
There’s also a love for old school horror films, as can be seen in the retro opening, featuring a movie within the movie, compete with bad acting and an overly eager boom operator. Like in Tim Burton’s Frankenweenie, 2012’s other big stop-motion B-movie throwback, it’s obvious that the filmmakers have a thing for scary movies. But where Burton’s influences were Boris Karloff and Toho, Butler’s script takes its cues from George Romero and John Carpenter, right down to the awesome synth chords that herald the zombies’ arrival. In keeping with these gruesome inspirations, ParaNorman is at time pretty frightening, particularly towards its perilous (and stunningly animated) finale. Nothing a kid of Norman’s age shouldn’t be able to handle, but younger children might be better off with something lighter.
ParaNorman does have a tendency to indulge a little in lazy stereotypes when it comes to its supporting characters. Anna Kendrick (Scott Pilgrim vs. The World) and Christopher Mintz-Plasse (Kick-Ass) aren’t exactly breaking new ground as Norman’s ditzy teenaged sister and dim-witted schoolyard tormenter, respectively. (Although in fairness, there is also more to some characters, like the muscle-bound jock Mitch (Casey Affleck; Gone Baby Gone), than initially meets the eye.) There’s also a scene in which our hero is confronted by an angry mob; a situation which, although admittedly something of a staple in gothic horror, is also long past the point of cliché. It doesn’t help that Burton did the same thing just a few months earlier.
Still, while we’ve seen pitchfork wielding townsfolk plenty of times before, it at least makes a certain amount of sense here. As much as they drew from classic zombie movies, Butler and Fells were equally inspired by the likes of the Salem witch trials. ParaNorman is very much a film about what drives people to be bullies, and ultimately suggests that most of the time it’s fear. Fear of what’s different. Fear of what’s unknown. None of the villains in this film are truly villainous; rather, they’re just people who’re afraid. It’s an important message for kids to absorb, one that’s every bit as true now as it was three-hundred years ago.