Movie Information

The Story: A young horror-movie fan who can talk to the dead finds himself heir to the task of preventing a 300-year-old curse from befalling the town of Blithe Hollow. The Lowdown: A clever animated horror comedy for kids. The animation is striking, the horror content surprisingly strong (and savvy) and the film is several notches above any kid movies that have come out this year. But it may scare younger children and upset some parents.
Genre: Animated Horror Comedy
Director: Chris Butler and Sam Fell (Flushed Away)
Starring: (Voices) Kodi Smit-McPhee, Tucker Albrizzi, Anna Kendrick, Casey Affleck, Christpher Mintz-Plasse
Rated: PG

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.

About Ken Hanke
Head film critic for Mountain Xpress from December 2000 until his death in June 2016. Author of books "Ken Russell's Films," "Charlie Chan at the Movies," "A Critical Guide to Horror Film Series," "Tim Burton: An Unauthorized Biography of the Filmmaker."

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4 thoughts on “ParaNorman

  1. Vince Lugo

    This is the most awesome kids’ movie ever! And not only is it by far the best animated film this year (so far), I would also say it’s the year’s best horror film, slightly edging out The Woman In Black. The audience I saw it with was small, but we all had a blast. Interestingly, upon a second viewing, there are some subtle hints about the gay character’s identity throughout the film that viewers may or may not catch. The style reminded me more of Robert Rodriguez than Tarantino and I like to think that if Rodriguez ever made an animated film, it would be something like this. Bravo, Laika!

  2. Xanadon't

    Does that awesome orange-striped blue van belong to another horror movie? Or maybe I’m just thinking of the flame-outfitted conversion van from Edward Scissorhands?

    Really enjoyed this one, either way.

    Okay, so it’s official– if there’s one horror movie that the 2000s has given us that I need to revisit between now and Halloween, it’s Silent Hill.

  3. Ken Hanke

    The van didn’t kick-off anything in my cross-reference brain, but if I saw it again with that in mind, who knows?

  4. popcorn&nonpareils

    After seeing all the raves on this movie, we were disappointed. It was too loud, with too ugly animation (and no – it is not stop-action animation as the millennial reviewers – who apparently don’t understand the craft – are saying; rather ‘computer aided’ stop-action animation and there is a difference) and not enough care taken with some of the plot elements. For ex: Norman’s grandma keeps saying it’s her job to watch over him and protect him – but she nowhere to be seen when the chips are down and Norman is in deep do-dah. If she’s going to play no part in the action at crunch time, why have all that business about watching over him. Things she was saying were funny enough – that could have been left out with no consequence to the story line.

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