Taking cues from their own deliciously creepy Coraline from 2009, the animation studio Laika Entertainment serves up another stop-motion spooker for kids, the often charmingly macabre ParaNorman.
Kodie Smit-McPhee (The Road) voices the spiky-haired misfit Norman, a low-key loner with a peculiar knack for communicating with the dead. Maligned and tormented by his peers and even family, Norman escapes their harsh judgments by watching cheap zombie flicks and indulging in conversations with his late grandmother. His sixth sense may cause him troubles, but it comes in handy when an
ancient witch's curse raises a septet of pilgrim corpses from the grave,
and only he has the ability to stop it.
While there's enough in ParaNorman for the whole family to enjoy, it does mostly lean towards appeasing the kids. For discerning adults, a number of the visual gags overstay their welcome,
many scenes are obnoxiously scored, and one finds oneself wishing the directors (Chris Butler and Sam Fell) had more evenly fleshed the film's serious undertones. Themes about bullying, adults not listening to kids, and prejudging those who are different domineer the opening reel and the intense climax, but they all disappear in the second act, which gives way to madcap hijinks and physical humour. The result of this front/back-ending of thematic meat is a muddled message movie with lots of comic bloat in the middle, only half of which works anyway. For every gag that tickles, there's one that falls short, although I'm sure kids will like most of it.
Not that ParaNorman isn't without its strengths. The jokes that do land are indeed funny, usually well delivered by an eclectic cast. As one might expect, the highest praise goes to the film's visual conception and execution. Each frame is filled from corner to corner with delightful details which merit a second look, and the meticulously crafted environs are marvelously buttressed by some kick-ass visual effects – although it's not enough to justify the superfluous 3D. The artists who create and animate this world one cell at a time truly deserve nothing less than total admiration for their labourious efforts.
Even if I'm not entirely over the moon about it, I'm certainly glad that movies like this exist. It may not achieve the high bar of psychological depth and nuance set by Coraline, but kid-friendly horror films of acceptable quality are hard to come by, let alone ones which aren't afraid to meet kids head-on about very kid-pertinent issues. Children are capable of enjoying scary movies too, just so long as the scares are meant for children. It's a fine tightrope to walk, but ParaNorman mostly finds the right balance, even if it leaves the parents wanting.