What a pleasant late summer surprise — a horror movie that’s a savvy, intelligent, well-crafted animated horror comedy for kids should also appeal to adult horror fans as well! This isn’t one of those committee-made movies with half-a-dozen writers, but one of those rare animated films that’s basically the vision of one person, Chris Butler — previously a storyboard artist. It’s being promoted as being from Laika Entertainment, whose name was on Tim Burton’s Corpse Bride (2005) and Henry Selick’s Coraline (2009). That’s fair — and Butler worked on both films — but this is very much its own beast. It has a tone and style all its own — or perhaps I should say that’s all Chris Butler’s own.
The trailer gives very little hint of what the film is actually like. Oh, yes, it’s about a boy named Norman (voiced by Kodi Smit-McPhee, Let Me In) who can see and talk to the dead, and how that peculiar gift makes him an outsider. But it also makes him the only person who might be able to stop a zombie invasion in his small town. (The last bit turns out to be somewhat different in the end.) This, however, offers no clue to the flavor of the film — something that becomes apparent from…well, the very first frame. Taking a tip from Quentin Tarantino, Butler’s film sets itself up as a kind of drive-in experience with a well-worn title announcing, “Our Feature Presentation.” It then frames itself in that realm of bottom-of-the-barrel horror movies (complete with a wayward boom microphone). This turns out to be a show that Norman and his grandmother (voiced by Elaine Stritch of all people) are watching on TV — or that Norman is watching and describing to his more squeamish grandma. (Most of us who grew up on horror pictures will relate to this). The difference here is that the old lady has been dead for some considerable time. Norman has no issue with this, but his family and the rest of the town do.
Not surprisngly, Norman lacks friends and becomes the target of the school bully, Alvin (voiced by an against-type Christopher Mintz-Plasse). Another target is Neil (voiced by TV actor Tucker Albrizzi), the “fat kid,” who befriends Norman (somewhat against Norman’s will). Neil is used to being bullied — dismissing bullying as part of human nature — and has a much sunnier outlook on life in general. In the midst of this setup, Norman starts having visions of something nasty under the surface in the town of Blithe Hollow — the nature of which is made clear to him by the town hermit Mr. Prenderghast (voiced by John Goodman), who reveals that he’s about to die and Norman must take up the mantle of keeping a 300-year-old curse at bay by reading from a book at the grave of the town’s long-dead, but legendary, witch. If this isn’t done, it seems those who accused her and got her hanged will rise from the dead to plague the town. I’ll leave the plot at that, because it’s best for the film to reveal its own surprises.
What makes the film such a delight is how grounded it is in horror-movie history. Everything is here from The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920), to the black brambles of Disney’s Sleeping Beauty (1959), to references to the Friday the 13th and Halloween series — and, of course, the requisite zombie tropes. A good deal of the film owes a heavy debt to Christophe Gans’ Silent Hill (2006) — including the way Norman’s visions are conveyed. In fact, the film’s ending (and one of its effects) bears a striking similarity to that film (no barbed wire, though), right down to casting Jodelle Ferland from Silent Hill as the voice for ParaNorman‘s equivalent to her Silent Hill character. Perhaps the most striking aspect of all this is that so much of it is handled more like a horror film than an animated kids movie. I suspect this will delight savvy horror fan kids (who’ve probably seen more of these movies than their parents think). How parents will feel may be another matter — and, in truth, the film probably isn’t for younger children. I’ve seen some adult outrage on message boards — mostly from the same people who fret over Harry Potter movies, and as much over the offhand inclusion of a gay character — so keep that in mind (you know your children and your standards better than others do). But if you like horror movies or you have kids who do, this is a delight. Rated PG for scary action and images, thematic elements, some rude humor and language.