All right! This is how I like my animated kids’ movies — intelligent, funny, and scary enough to keep you up at night. ParaNorman comes to us from Laika Entertainment, the same stop-motion animation studio that brought us the glorious Coraline. The film is being marketed as a morbidly funny adventure about a kid who can talk to friendly ghosts, but it goes far beyond that, tackling big subjects and achieving rare power. So what if the movie’s a bit ragged? It’s quite unlike anything else out there.
The title refers to Norman Babcock (voiced by Kodi Smit-McPhee), an 11-year-old boy growing up in the New England town of Blithe Hollow, who tends to shun his fellow students in favor of his obsession with horror movies — his ring tone is the theme from The Exorcist. He can also talk to spirits of the dead and frequently does so while he’s walking down the street. Since he’s the only one who can see the ghosts, his parents (voiced by Jeff Garlin and Leslie Mann) are greatly concerned about him, and the bullies at school make him a target. As the 300th anniversary of an infamous Blithe Hollow witch hunt approaches, the ghosts and his crazy hoarder uncle (voiced by John Goodman) warn Norman about the dead rising from their graves on that day unless he stops them. His uncle gives Norman the warning both before and after he drops dead of a heart attack.
This is only the beginning of a complicated plot, as Norman’s attempts to avert a zombie epidemic are thwarted by chief school bully Alvin (voiced by Christopher Mintz-Plasse), leading to an authentically terrifying scene early on when Norman and Alvin hide out in his uncle’s house while zombies roam the halls. Thanks to first-time director/co-writer Chris Butler and writing partner Sam Fell, nobody is who they appear to be here, not the zombies themselves, nor Alvin, nor Blithe Hollow’s adults, who turn into a full-fledged lynch mob once they realize that they’re up against the undead. It’s up to a posse of Norman, Alvin, Norman’s only friend Neil (voiced by Tucker Albrizzi), Norman’s bratty teenage sister (voiced by Anna Kendrick), and Neil’s meathead older brother (voiced by Casey Affleck) to keep the town from being destroyed entirely.
The movie has to strike a fine balance between horror and comedy, and it frequently achieves that, as in a nifty gag with a Jason Voorhees mask and a ghoulish bit of slapstick when Norman has to pry a book from the rigid hands of his uncle’s corpse. There is a noticeable lapse near the end when the comic bickering of Norman’s posse intrudes on the action-packed final, but that only highlights how well the filmmakers manage the tone in the rest of the film.
Smit-McPhee’s presence resonates here. The Australian kid actor starred in Let Me In, a film that comes to grips with the complexities of bullying, much like this one. On the one hand, ParaNorman mines the subject for humor through the thoroughly delightful character of Neil, who maintains his good cheer even though the bullies pick on him even more than they do on Norman. (“It’s just because I’m fat and I have asthma and I sweat when I walk too fast and my lunchbox has a kitten on it, and I have irritable bowel syndrome.”) On the other hand, the chief villain here turns out to be the witch (voiced by Jodelle Ferland) who was hanged 300 years ago and now seeks revenge on the town. The movie attains true horror when Norman is transported back to the 18th century and witnesses the witch’s trial, a monstrous miscarriage of justice carried out against a truly helpless person. Norman has to lift the curse by helping the witch forgive her persecutors, and he does it not only creatively but in such a way that it forces him to reckon with his own response to the bullying he has experienced. It’s all beautifully managed.
The animation generally doesn’t draw attention to itself in the early going, but the animators at Laika go for broke during the climactic showdown. I don’t want to give away too much, but I’ll say that the witch takes an uncanny form that’s both beautiful and scarier than an old woman in a pointy hat could possibly be. The visual virtuosity on display in ParaNorman, the mix of comedy and terror, and the insight it brings to a thorny subject make it a uniquely powerful piece of work. I’ll be surprised if we see a better animated movie all year.
Voices by Kodi Smit-McPhee, Anna Kendrick, and Christopher Mintz-Plasse. Directed by Chris Butler and Sam Fell. Written by Chris Butler. Rated PG.