Once upon a time, “paranormal” was a word that only Fortean Times subscribers and Fox Mulder on “The X-Files” used. But, thanks to Tim Burton and a whole bunch of vampire-romance authors, the catchall concept has become to the early 21st century what “spiritualism” was to the early 20th — weirdness turned fad.
This year brings us not one, not two, but three animated family movies based on the watered-down goth aesthetic associated with Burton, of which ParaNorman is the first. (The other two are Hotel Transylvania, with Adam Sandler voicing Dracula; and Frankenweenie, directed by Burton himself.) ParaNorman comes to us from Laika, the stop-motion animation studio that demonstrated, with 2009’s Coraline, that a good story could give emotional heft to standard spookhouse imagery.
While this flick from directors Chris Butler and Sam Fell comes closer to middle-grade boilerplate plotting than Coraline did, ParaNorman offers reasonably smart laughs and scares for kids old enough to enjoy a little ghoulishness. Parents, at least those who like the genre, will appreciate the horror-geek references and the visual grotesquerie of the film’s world.
That’s a fictional New England village called Blithe Hollow, evoking both Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Sleepy Hollow and Noël Coward’s Blithe Spirit. According to legend, the town was cursed centuries ago by a witch facing execution, but today her imprecations mean nothing to the inhabitants but a steady stream of tourist dollars. The only one aware of ongoing supernatural doings is 11-year-old Norman (voiced by Kodi Smit-McPhee), who has an inconvenient talent: He sees dead people.
When Norman tells his salt-of-the-earth parents (Leslie Mann and Jeff Garlin) that he’s been chatting with his deceased grandma (Elaine Strich), they despair for his sanity; at school, he’s a pariah who receives friendship overtures only from the requisite fat kid (Tucker Albrizzi). Meanwhile, Norman’s shaggy backwoods uncle (John Goodman) keeps popping up and insisting it’s the boy’s job to save his town from impending doom. Naturally, he’s right.
Visually, ParaNorman is striking; Norman’s exaggerated, conflicting planes (vertical hair, horizontal brows) seem to bristle with anxiety. Tonally, it often resembles an episode of “The Simpsons” Halloween showcase, “Treehouse of Horror,” with more moralizing and less blood. Blithe Hollow is a more picturesque version of Springfield, with scrappy, literal-minded residents who don’t hesitate to form a well-armed mob when faced with, say, roaming zombies. (The joke is that the zombies are the ones in danger.) Norman’s dad is a lout, his mom is a space case, his teen sister (Anna Kendrick) is a vapid boy chaser, and even the friends he eventually makes are semi-snarky caricatures.
As the story progresses, everyone gains certain human dimensions, but Norman remains the only character sensitive enough to redeem his community — Blithe Hollow’s Lisa, if you will. Smit-McPhee (who starred in The Road) delivers a nuanced voice performance — a nice contrast to the rest of the broadly comic cast.
ParaNorman’s satire is refreshing, but its theme — that we shouldn’t persecute people who are “different” — is well worn, to say the least, and its resolution is no surprise. The oft-repeated moral, first voiced by Norman’s grandma, is that we shouldn’t allow fear to “change who we are.” It’s a valid lesson, but one that doesn’t address the legitimately scary stuff: Stephen King’s Carrie was an abused, misunderstood teen, but tell that to the kids at her prom.
In goth-lite family films like ParaNorman, terrors tend to melt when exposed to the rational light of day. The irony is that, in just a few years, the kids who enjoy them could be teenagers lapping up full-on horror flicks with no moral except “survive.”