Directors: Chris Butler and Sam Fell
Viewed: August 18, 2012
Format: Digital Theatrical Projection (Wehrenberg Ronnies 20 Cine)
Rather unexpectedly, Henry Selick’s kiddie-goth bedtime story Coraline revealed itself as one of the best feature films of 2009: an unassuming masterpiece bursting with sensory wonders, psychological depth, and pitch-perfect storytelling. The film was an absurdly auspicious feature debut for stop-motion animation studio Laika, and it was perhaps unavoidable that their sophomore effort, the zombies-and-black-magic horror-comedy Paranorman, would prove to be a lesser work. Nonetheless, Laika’s latest film successfully claws its way out from under the long, skittering shadow of Coraline and reveals itself as a marvelous, PG-gruesome cauldron of delights. Moreover, beneath its giddy vibe of dime-store Halloween scares lies an emotional potency that is positively startling.
Certainly, Paranorman operates in an entirely different register than Coraline, although like Laika’s previous film, its exquisite design has a magical, immersive character that benefits significantly from the tactile qualities of stop-motion. Where Coraline was a bedtime story streaked with mythic nods and Grimm ghoulishness, Paranorman is much more aggressively satirical. It is not, however, principally a satire of the horror genre, but of the cheap ugliness of contemporary life in general. Writer and co-director Chris Butler sets his tale in the New England settlement of Blythe Hollow, an unrepentantly tacky little town that is spiritual kin to Springfield of The Simpsons fame. The populace is generally dimwitted and self-absorbed, having long ago elected to make a quick buck off its history of Puritan witch-hanging with a proliferation of burger joints and tchotchke shops.
One would think that grade-schooler Norman (Kodi Smit-McPhee), as a zombie movie aficionado, would be at home in a town where the spooky has been rendered banal and kitschy. Alas: Norman possesses a talent for seeing and speaking to ghosts, and while this ability has enabled him to maintain a relationship with his departed grandmother (the marvelous Elaine Stritch), it has alienated him from his living family and peers. His father (Jeff Garlin) and mother (Leslie Mann) react to Norman’s claims of otherworldly socializing with hostility and anxiousness, respectively, while his narcissistic teen sister Courtney (Anna Kendrick) simply sneers and huffs. School, meanwhile, is a gauntlet of ostracism and bullying, the latter perpetrated chiefly by mean-spirited lunk Alvin (Chrispterh Mintz-Plasse). Friends are in short supply, which is perhaps why Norman reacts with bafflement to the genial entreaties of cheerful, rotund schoolmate Neil (Tucker Albrizzi).
Mystery worms its way into Norman’s unhappy routine when his batty, hygiene-challenged uncle Mr. Penderghast (John Goodman) approaches him, offering dire warnings liberally sprinkled with mad cackling. Blythe Hollow, it turns out, is afflicted by an ancient curse that Mr. Penderghast holds at bay through an annual ritual, and it is presently Norman’s turn to take over for his uncle. Naturally, the curse is connected to the town’s legend of the hanged witch, and, naturally, the Real Story is nothing like the sanitized tale presented in the annual school pageant for which Norman and Neil are currently rehearsing. Unfortunately, the under-prepared Norman ends up fumbling his curse-warding duties, and things go pear-shaped awfully fast. Seven remorseless Puritan zombies rise from the grave and lurch towards town, while a storm of crackling black magic begins to gather…
There’s quite a bit going on beneath Paranorman’s screwball surface, but the film hangs together remarkably well. Butler and co-director Sam Fell mostly keep the broad, dialed-up comedic horror in the foreground. To be sure, the film makes space for moodier, atmospheric scares and more than a few emotionally wrenching moments. However, Paranorman’s diverse elements cohere that much more effectively because the viewer knows that satirical jabs and wacky zombie gags lie waiting in the wings, ready to shamble onscreen at a moment’s notice. Ultimately, the film is attuned to the wavelength personified by Norman himself: the fearless kid who adores the freakish and revolting, and holds very little sacred. Paranorman gets plenty of mileage out supernatural-related humor, but also out of poking fun the rampant stupidity, gluttony, and propensity for violence in American culture. That’s a fairly nasty stance for what is theoretically a family film, and the result feels like an uncanny cross between Idiocracy, Beetlejuice, and an Abbott and Costello monster feature.
The film’s phenomenal design reflects its cynical bent: every character is a grotesque, even the ones who are theoretically intended to be “attractive,” such as apple-bottomed cheerleader Courtney, and her latest romantic infatuation, Neil’s none-too-bright bodybuilding older brother Mitch (Casey Affleck). Equally vital are the environments, which exhibit a remarkable level of detail—Norman’s zombie-themed bedroom in particular is a day-glo wonderland of eye-popping minutiae—and establish a dense, amusingly garish substrate for the film’s nightmarish events. The filmmakers even manage to work in allusions to classic horror films without being smug and detached about it. (One particular visual nod to Halloween is quite satisfying, and placed at an entirely appropriate moment.)
At times, it becomes glaringly apparent that Paranorman’s narrative is fueled more by momentum and laughs than by dramatic urgency. The exact mortal threat posed by seven wobbly zombies is never quite clarified, and the characters spend a good deal of time fleeing to and fro without any particular plan or destination. (The fact that the film itself lampshades the silliness of its scenario doesn’t prevent the relentless running and screaming from dragging in spots.) Like The Simpsons, however, Paranorman accomplishes the deft feat of being a mildly acidic send-up of, well, everything awful about America, while also making space for earnest emotional beats. Norman’s loneliness is palpable without veering into adolescent miserablism, and the risks he eventually takes for a town that barely tolerates him reveal a selflessness and wisdom that is truly heroic.
Perhaps the most surprising aspect of the film is its message, which is both stridently anti-bullying and critical of fear-based reasoning. Moreover, the film ties these two threads together expertly, illustrating that cruelty in the adult world is rooted in the same cultural and personal fearfulness that drives pint-sized bullies like Alvin. Butler and Fell work this theme in sneakily, seeding the early scenes with lines that at first seem like pablum from an after-school special, but are later revealed as key psychological observations that relate directly to the tale of the witch’s curse. Paranorman’s poignancy and the surprising gravity of its lessons are driven home with a stunning reveal that occurs roughly at the beginning of the third act. Nothing in any film in 2012—animated or live-action, kid-friendly or adult-serious—has come close to equalling the affecting gut-punch of that moment, and for that alone, Paranorman is a welcome treat.