“From the makers of Coraline” is a label that is both promising and daunting, but Laika studios somewhat delivers — mostly from a visual standpoint — in this story of a town plagued by a witch-zombie curse that can only be mitigated by one young boy. Co-directed by Sam Fell (The Tale of Desperaux, Flushed Away) and Chris Butler (who did storyboards for Coraline), Paranorman is a both too pseudo-smart for its own good and too creepy and intense for the younger children out there. While I hate to advise people to, you know, watch a film’s trailer before making a judgment call whether to watch a movie, it’s an unusually good idea to do so here; if your kid is spooked by the zombies in the Paranorman trailer, they’ll probably be terrified of the film as a whole, which includes disembodied limbs, a fairly scary witch, and ectoplasm scattered in all sorts of places. Not to mention that haunted toilet that could put some kids back into diapers.
By and large, Paranorman will probably not score hugely other than in a cult capacity. Here’s the story, which is pretty straightforward on its own: Young Norman (Kodi Smit-McPhee) sees dead people (cue obligatory Sixth Sense references), which makes him an outcast and earns him the nickname “Abnorman.” So the titular 11-year-old boy largely hangs out with his recently departed late Grandma (Elaine Stritch), and he also finds kindred spirits in horror movies themselves, of which he is a huge fan. He’s also got a pretty rad, permanently-raised hairdo that betrays his stoic manner of reaction to all of the supernatural nonsense he’s forced to deal with on a daily basis. For the most part, he’s kind of over it, really. Not much scares him.
Unbeknownst to Norman, he’s got a higher calling than just being semi-spooked on an ongoing basis. He lives in Blithe Hollow (which is rendered gorgeously as colonial-esque town bearing a history of witch trials and hilariously attempts to capitalize therein) with his parents, Sandra (Leslie Mann) and Perry (Jeff Garlin), who don’t tolerate his abilities, and an annoyingly vapid and dismissive teenage sister, Courtney (Anna Kendrick, who consistently does acerbic well). Also in the mix are Norman’s fat friend Neil (Tucker Albrizzi); his very not-fat friend, Mitch (Casey Affleck, welcome back?); and the bully Alvin (Christopher Mintz-Plasse, oddly enough), who makes Norm’s life hell at school. It’s comes as a sweet irony that Norman is in no way disturbed by his extrasensory companions, for they’re much kinder to him than actual living people. Then fate intervenes when Norm’s Uncle Prenderghast (John Goodman), who shares Norman’s auspicious gift, warns Norman of the impending return of a 300-year-old witches’ curse that will raise an army of undead. Norman is tasked with trying to stop the doom that quickly approaches, but of course, it’s too late. Otherwise, the movie would be over very quickly.
Everything starts out very clever during the first act when the film seems pleasantly obtuse and very throwback in manner of old-school horror movies. And the stop-motion rendered animation is to die for, but somewhere along the line, the movie falters when the tale unravels. That is, once the zombie shit kicks in, devolves into a seemingly never-ending, mayhem-ridden, madcap episode reminiscent of a “Phineas and Ferb” Halloween episode that continues for the greater part of the movie and doesn’t let up until exhaustion has long since set in for its viewers. What I’m essentially saying is this — if the screenwriters devoted a fraction of the energy to pacing the story as they did with the effort that went into the visuals (and a fantastic score from Jon Brion), this would be a must-see movie for warped individuals such as yourselves.
As it stands, Paranorman is better than the average PG-rated, kid-geared flick, but it’s still a disappointment in its execution. Norman becomes something of a hero after fighting to secure his town from the undead, but the film’s resolution gets carried away with some very heavy-handed end messages about mob mentality, bullying, and (obviously) death. Mostly, Paranorman will also scare the crap out of the vast majority of the under-10 crowd. So unless you’re child free or the parent of young Eli Roth, it behooves oneself to skip this one in theaters and just wait for home rental instead.
Agent Bedhead lives in Tulsa, Oklahoma. She and her little black heart can be found at Celebitchy.