The stop-motion animated film ParaNorman celebrated its tenth anniversary around the same time as my wife and I attended Bubonicon in Albuquerque, New Mexico. As it turns out, someone placed a DVD copy of the movie on the convention’s freebie table and my wife picked it up. Somehow, we missed this movie when it was released. It was produced by Laika, the same studio that adapted Neil Gaiman’s Coraline and made Kubo and the Two Strings, both films that have a valued place in our collection. We figured it would be worth watching. In the worst case scenario, we could turn the DVD into our local used bookstore for trade credit.
As it turns out, I spent the first twenty minutes or so of the movie wondering if I would indeed be turning in for trade credit. There was nothing wrong with the film and, as I’ve come to expect from Laika, the animation was brilliant, but the tropes felt just a little too familiar. We had an outcast kid who’s bullied at school. His only friend is the overweight kid with allergies. His dad doesn’t understand him and he has a weird uncle. Still, Norman’s ability to speak with ghosts and the fact that he seemed to live in a little New England town, which seemed a little too obsessed with a legendary witch in its past made me want to see what would happen.
The movie turned a corner for me when the weird uncle dies and makes Norman promise to maintain a ritual, which is supposed to keep the witch’s ghost at bay. Norman proceeds with the plan and discovers the ritual involves reading from a book of fairy tales. What’s more, he doesn’t subdue the ghost, but raises a batch of zombies, who set out for town while the witch’s ghost begins stirring things up. The mystery of what was happening suddenly became much more interesting. Along the way to solving the mystery, we also find that the bully isn’t a simple antagonist. I don’t want to spoil things, but the writing revealed new layers to the character without resorting to the simplistic “misunderstood bad guy” trope. When Norman finally learns the truth behind the witch’s ghost, we meet a character both scarier and more sympathetic than I was expecting.
Western animation tends to be marketed to children and it’s clear the producers of ParaNorman were aware they would have many children in their audience. What I appreciated was that they respected the intelligence of both the kids and the adults in the audience. In a movie where people can become ghosts after they die, the movie gave us no pat answers about what happens when the ghosts “move on.” The parents do their best, but they don’t always do what’s best. They had sly references to both famous horror films and Scooby-Doo. They allowed themselves to engage in some dark humor without feeling like they did anything inappropriate for kids. They also invited us to understand the characters without always insisting that we like those characters. In the end, ParaNorman found its way onto my shelf next to Coraline and Kubo and the Two Strings. My only regret is that I hadn’t discovered the film sooner.