BY DAN BUSKIRK FILM CRITIC Not since the 1967 animated film Mad Monster Party (made by Rankin/Bass of Christmas special fame) has there been an animated film made to appeal to the pre-teen monster fiend in me. With the success of The Nightmare Before Christmas there has been a line of spooky animated films for kids but ParaNorman is the first to have a horror-loving kid in the center of its story. Made in the medium of true figure animation (which in our modern world is merged with computer processes as well) by some of the folks who brought us Coraline and the Corpse Bride, this over-stuffed kid’s film boasts gorgeous, luminescent design, some delicately rendered 3-D and the unpleasantly morose heart of a jaded teenager.
For horror fans, the joy starts right at the opening, as the film recreates your basic cinematic zombie attack, which even rendered in animation feels shockingly close to a nasty Italian gore fest. It’s revealed to be a movie the sad-eyed young Norman (voiced by Kodi Smit-McPhee) is watching on TV, with the ghost of his kindly grandmother. Like the kid in Sixth Sense, Norman can see dead people, a gift that has left him a bit of a pariah in his small town. The only one sharing his gift is the town nut Mr. Prenderghast (voiced by John Goodman) who has secretly been protecting the town from an ancient witches curse. When Mr. Prenderghast dies, it is up to Norman to protect, and perhaps rescue his town from the curse.
One might argue there is nothing wrong with giving a kid a little scare in a story but, wow, ParaNorman goes deeper than any similar kids film I’ve ever seen in delivering big shocking scares. The film references and draws from R-rated horror films like Halloween and Night of the Living Dead, and even swipes its main plot from The Evil Dead series. Copying the music and the cutting styles from these films, and adding such fluid special effects, ParaNorman hits its scare with a surprising ferocity. I was left unflustered but couldn’t help wondering if the sounds of piercing children’s screams might echo through other screenings.
Aside from the scares, the element that seemed most out of whack was the over-riding unpleasantness of the town’s citizens. I understand that Norman is alienated but the townsfolk, with the possible exception of Norman’s tubby best friend Neil, are all dim-witted slobs. Too much time is spent with unrepentantly unpleasant characters, whether it be Norman’s status-obsessed, boy crazy teenage sister Courtney (the blasé Anna Kendrick,) Neil’s musclehead jock brother Mitch (Casey Affleck,) or Norman’s dismissive parents, Neil’s companions are too cruelly drawn and self-absorbed to be much fun. ParaNorman’s whole world is painted with a disdainful air, a sour view I have a hard time accepting as a child’s perspective, but perhaps the view of people who toil in solitude over little puppets for endless hours.
However, I bet a misanthropic teen might really groove to this ghost-ridden scenario. Yet even when the townspeople change their minds abut the heroic little weirdo, the film’s dark view of humanity left me unconvinced that the town deserved saving, it might be better to just turn it over to the undead. The Dark Side or Life-As-We-Know –It, ParaNorman makes that choice more difficult than you’d expect from a kid’s film, but than again, I always thought Oz was more enticing than Kansas, too.