Using M. Night Shyamalan’s The Sixth Sense as a launchpad, co-directors Chris Butler (a storyboard artist on The Corpse Bride & Coraline) and Sam Fell (former Aardman director and the writer here) create the first ever zombie movie for kids. A simple story, wrapped up in transgressive characters and painstaking, beautiful stop-motion animation, it’s ghoulish charm sustains long enough for us to skim over the plot and tonal problems.
Norman (voiced by Kodi Smit-McPhee) is not your average school-kid. He doesn’t spend his time outside playing football, nor is he glued to a computer screen. He loves all things horror-filled, from old Frankenstein adaptations on the telly, to John Carpenter’s signature Halloween theme as his mobile’s ringtone. How he acquired such a penchant for the macabre is unknown, but the fact that he sees chatty ghosts roaming the streets surely can’t help.
Ignored by his parents (Jeff Garlin and the ever sultry-sounding Leslie Mann), tormented at home by his older sister Courtney (Anna Kendrick), and at school by impish bully Alvin (Christopher Mintz-Plasse), he prefers to spend time hanging out on his own/in the company of the dead (including his Grandma, voiced by the brilliantly hoarsy Elaine Stritch). But when Norman starts having apocalyptic visions of his town being destroyed by the local folklore, he is in desperate need for someone to talk to. Only two people believe his story, his eccentric, clairvoyant uncle (John Goodman) and the lonesome, equally bullied school-kid Neil (Tucker Albrizzi).
When his old uncle pops his clogs, it’s left to Norman to protect the town from the ancient curse, and the living dead who start to emerge from their graves. Thankfully, he’s not alone, as Courtney, Alvin, Neil and his dimwitted older brother Mitch (Casey Affleck) join him on his Hammer horror quest.
In a year where we’ve seen garish animations such as Madagascar 3 and Ice Age 4, ParaNorman feels like a breath of fresh air. Refreshingly twee and small-scaled, it shares the same passion for horror genre conventions as Henry Selick’s Coraline, The Corpse Bride and The Nightmare Before Christmas). This carries over to the evocative score which laces the film, from ever-reliable composer Jon Brion (whose previous musicianship has perfected films such as Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and Punch-Drunk Love, to name but two).
Whilst it struggles to find it’s footing in the first forty minutes, as soon as the casket is forced open, Butler & Fell run riot with some great, zany sketch pieces and character depth. They cast typically against character, with the once wholesome, girl next doorsy Anna Kendrick voicing Norman’s bitchy older sister Courtney, and SuperBad‘s Christopher “Fogell” Mintz-Plasse as the school bully. Best of all is Casey Affleck as Neil’s older brother Mitch. It’s a hilarious, fantastically subversive character: an openly gay, dumb jock, the likes of which has never been encapsulate in so-called “children’s movies”.
It’s the universally perfect voice cast and stop-motion finesse that carries ParaNorman, averting us from the several plot-holes and heavy-handed ending. It doesn’t have the poise nor grace of a Pixar movie, meaning that the anti-bullying subtext feels aggrandised and the shifts in tone between horror and humour often leave you somewhere sandwiched in-between.
Let’s not be churlish, ParaNorman is a dark-horse success story. A bold feature from the aspiring Laika Studios, it’s an unmatched, intelligent children’s horror film, where gasps of terror will eventually turn into sighs of love.