While it's often unavoidable, it can be dangerous to go into a movie with too many preconceived expectations. Case in point: I walked into the new stop-motion animated paranormal adventure ParaNorman expecting one kind of movie and instead discovered it was actually something quite different. Reconciling the movie that was in my head with what was onscreen took some time, especially when what was onscreen wasn't quite clicking. But I warmed up to the movie and its pint-sized, spiky-haired hero by the end and, thinking back on it, I admire a number of the creative choices that directors Sam Fell and Chris Butler made, even if their ambition sometimes outstripped their execution. To help other moviegoers (especially those with kids) avoid falling into the trap of expectations not being met, here are a few things you should know about what ParaNorman is... and what it isn't.
It's Not a Comedy
Based on the early trailers and promotional materials, I anticipated that Fell and Butler would be making a loving parody of creature features, with jokes that the whole family could enjoy and not just bloodthirsty horror fans. And while there are some funny moments in ParaNorman (several of which feel as though they were added relatively late in the game, as if the studio got spooked that the movie was trending too dark), much of it is surprisingly serious in the way it approaches both its story and the monster stuff. Here's the basic set-up: Norman (voiced by Kodi Smit-McPhee) is a sweet, well-meaning kid who is treated as an outcast by his own family as well as most of the residents of his small New England town of Blithe Hollow. Why all the hate? Well, because he claims to be able to see ghosts and even though we're shown that he's telling the truth, nobody else in the movie can see the phantoms (ranging from his grandmother to a dog that was run over) he interacts with almost every day.
There's only one person around that's like him; his uncle (John Goodman) who is equally shunned by society, which is a shame because he's also been responsible from protecting Blithe Hollow from a witch's curse for much of his life. Now he's about to kick the bucket and Norman has to take over his duties. There's only one problem; the poor boy doesn't understand what those duties entail. So before he can say "Boo!" the town is overrun by zombies and a menacing spirit who is a literal force of nature. There's another layer to the story that I won't describe in detail here, but it involves a great miscarriage of justice that occurred in Blithe Hollow generations ago and that action has been a stain on its legacy ever since. The only way to wipe it away forever is for the injured parties to forgive each other and that's something that only Norman can bring about. The emotions this plot point raises are quite complex and mature and ParaNorman handles them in a refreshingly unironic fashion. Parents, expect to have some very interesting conversations with your kids after the credits roll and also don't be surprised if the youngest of them hide their eyes during the zombie attacks. While these scenes are considerably less gory and involve more slapstick than, say, Night of the Living Dead, these members of the walking dead aren't figures of fun -- they're legitimately freaky. Kids who are six and up should be able to handle it (indeed, some will probably really dig the zombie action) but those under that age might be staring hard at the Exit if they're faces aren't already buried in your lap.
It's Heavily Influenced by '80s Horror Movies
Not so much slasher pictures like A Nightmare on Elm Street and Friday the 13th, mind you. I'm talking more about Poltergeist and (especially) the kid-friendly Fred Dekker joint The Monster Squad, from which it borrows the idea of a group of mismatched kids who are thrown together to combat the monster menace. In this case, the group includes Norman, his obnoxious sister Courtney (Anna Kendrick, essentially reprising her role from Scott Pilgrim vs. the World), his chubby new pal Neil (Tucker Albrizzi), Neil's strapping older brother Mitch (Casey Affleck) and the school bully Alvin (Christopher Mintz-Plasse). Similarities also abound to non-horror '80s kid favorites like The Goonies and Explorers, both of which should immediately become required viewing for any 21st-century child that enjoys ParaNorman. In fact, 30 years ago, ParaNorman probably would have been made as a live-action companion piece to those movies and may have achieved that status as a generational touchstone.
It's No Coraline
ParaNorman is the second full-length feature from Laika, the stop-motion-centric studio that previously released Henry Selick's masterful 2009 adaptation of Neil Gaiman's children's novel Coraline. That movie was also a paranormal romp that explored some highly emotional territory, but Selick's experience in the form coupled with the power of Gaiman's original story lent it a consistency that this one lacks. Where Coraline effortlessly alternated comedic and serious moments and smoothly unfurled its story, ParaNorman is a more clunky affair that takes at least a half-hour to find its groove. It's also not quite the visual feast that its predecessor was (Coraline remains one of the most dazzling stop-motion animated films ever made and Selick could teach James Cameron a thing or two about how to use 3D), although it's still lovely to look at and the climactic encounter between Norman and the spirit that haunts the town offers some pretty spectacular images.
It's Probably the Summer's Best Cartoon
Granted, it hasn't been the greatest season for animated family entertainment, littered as it was with franchise sequels (Madagascar 3 and Ice Age 4) and a solid, but not exceptional Pixar entry (Brave). And, on its own terms, ParaNorman doesn't measure up to the cartoon favorites of summer's past, among them Toy Story 3, Wall-E and Ponyo. But it stands above the crowd this year based on its obvious affection for horror movies, the emotional heft provided by Norman's final heroic act and its stop-motion artistry, a form that allows for a depth and tactile realism to the image that's still unmatched by even the best CGI animation. So in the end, what should you expect from ParaNorman? How about a good movie -- nothing more, nothing less.
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