Souring Halloween

‘ParaNorman’ fails to treat in tricky macabre genre
by Willie Krischke

Labor Day’s come and gone, and the kids are back in school.  The grocery stores are stocked with Halloween candy and the multiplex with Halloween movies. Naturally, there will be a steady stream of forgettable horror flicks between now and November, but this year, alongside those are a surprising number of monster movies pitched to the elementary school set.
“ParaNorman” is the first of those (soon to be followed by “Frankenweenie” and “Hotel Transylvania.”) All these kids flicks are riffing off movies kids should never see, and this one is borrowing its premise from “The Sixth Sense.” Little Norman (voiced by Kodi Smit-McPhee) sees ghosts. They’re not that scary, once you get to know them. Mostly, they’re just normal people who, for one reason or another, have been denied access to paradise. Unfortunately, “Paranorman” doesn’t manage to do much with this premise loaded with potential. Norman watches TV with his dead grandmother and chats with ghosts on his way to school, and that’s about it. Premise wasted.

It’s enough to make him an outcast at school and get him in hot water with his parents, though, so life is tough on poor Norman. He lives in a town that celebrates its history as a famous Puritan witch-hunting hotspot; milking every tourist dollar it can out of such a shameful past. Norman soon learns that one of the hunted witches cursed the town before her death, and the curse is about to come to fruition, meaning zombies. It’s up to Norman to stop the zombie attack by appeasing the dead witch who is responsible for the curse.  

Joining Norman, all somewhat reluctantly, in his quest to save the town that hates him is a decidedly predictable motley crew. There’s his sister Courtney (Anna Kendrick) who resents him for all the ways his weirdness impedes her social life. Also, his best friend Neil, a chubby nerd impervious to ridicule and bullying; who just refuses to go away (“I like to be left alone,” Norman tells him.  “I do too! Let’s do it together!” he excitedly chirps.) He’s a close cousin to the best friend in “Super 8,” and more distantly related to the kid from “Up.” In addition, there are two monosyllabic dudes with necks as thick as their heads – one is the school bully, voiced by Christopher Mintz-Plasse, aka McLoven (I got a laugh out of that as the credits rolled, and I hope knowing this scrawny, nerdy guy is voicing Alvin will enhance the movie for you) and the other is Neil’s hunky big brother, voiced by Casey Affleck (again, the disconnect!) who Courtney keeps throwing herself after, until she learns a critical bit of info about him in almost the last frame of the film.
The tone of “ParaNorman” is all over the place, and it drops loose ends like an angry hairstylist.  This script could’ve used a few more drafts. It starts off goofy and affable, builds up to a frenetic pace, and then blows out with a truly impressive and scary climax. It’s essentially a kid-friendly adventure horror, but it wants to be a comedy at the same time; there are jokes thrown away at an alarming pace, and they tend to distract from rather than enhance the action. Also, they’re remarkably risqué for a PG film; there are jokes about masturbation, indecent exposure, and sexual orientation.
They all go by quick and are easy to miss, and the filmmakers are fully expecting them to go right over the heads of young children. But if you’re old enough (and paying attention enough) to catch them, the effect is really jarring.
It’s also overloaded with moral lessons. The main one is that scared people often do and say terrible things that don’t accurately reflect who they really are; that point alone makes me glad this kid’s film is playing at the same time as “2016: Obama’s America.”  But also, kids are meant to learn from Norman to never give up on their gifts, even if those gifts make them outcasts. And bullies shouldn’t bully, and mobs are bad, and the people we villainize really aren’t so bad if you’d just stop and get to know them, and hanging onto your anger is counterproductive and so is refusing to forgive people.  And some other stuff, too, probably. I couldn’t keep up with all the lessons packed into 93 minutes.
“ParaNorman” is the second film from the studio that gave us “Coraline” a few years ago, and for that reason, I saw it in 3D. “Coraline” is one of only three movies I’ve seen that have justified the hassle of the glasses (the other two are “Avatar” and “How to Train Your Dragon”), and “ParaNorman” doesn’t expand that list to four. In every way I can imagine, this is a step down from “Coraline.” That was both a visual and tonal masterpiece; it benefitted both from being based on a Neil

 book and being directed by Henry Selick (“James and the Giant Peach,” “The Nightmare Before Christmas”) But “ParaNorman” is a cautionary tale in trusting any movie that says “From the Makers of” – neither Selick nor Gaiman are attached here, and it certainly feels like a story Gaiman would’ve rejected or rewrote, and a script Selick would’ve rejected (who knows, perhaps he did.) This business of the cheery macabre is tricky. It depends a great deal on being able to establish a consistent tone, and “ParaNorman” is tone-deaf. It has its moments but falls far short of what it sets out to do.
Hopefully, “Frankenweenie” and/or “Hotel Transylvania” – both of which look to be trafficking in the same vein of cheery/macabre – will fare better. They can’t all three be terrible, can they?

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