ParaNorman, opening today, is one of the most thematically tight movies I've ever seen. Pretty much everything in the movie relates back, one way or another, to the central theme of being a misfit in a judgmental, self-involved world. The story of a boy who can see and hear ghosts, ParaNorman has a huge heart and an unerring eye for character.
Anybody who's ever experienced feeling like a weirdo or an outcast will get a pretty big kick out of ParaNorman.
The studio behind ParaNorman struck gold with Coraline, but don't expect this film to be in the same mold. If anything, ParaNorman is much more of a conventional comedy, with supernatural elements thrown in. It's a very gentle, good-natured movie, with just a hint of darkness at its core, and a hefty dose of silliness in the mix.
Minor spoilers ahead... (Like, if you've seen the trailer, you're probably fine.)
ParaNorman is about a kid who can interact with ghosts, including the ghost of his grandmother who hangs out on the sofa in his living room. He's a happy, well-adjusted kid — except that people give him shit for talking to apparitions that nobody else can see, and he gets bullied at school. And that's before his crazy uncle turns up and starts telling him about his duty to prevent a zombie nightmare. And also before Norman starts seeing weird visions of Hell on Earth. Soon enough, Norman is forced to step up and save his town from a supernatural nightmare — and the unsympathetic, conformist townspeople are one of the main obstacles in his path.
You've seen this sort of story tons of times before — in which the strange outsider is the one who turns out to be able to save everyone else, because of the awesome power that comes from seeing things differently. ParaNorman does a great job of taking that well-worn theme and breathing new life into it, both by making Norman a pretty unique, lovable character and by introducing a lot of subplots and sidelines that intersect with the main story in a way that adds a lot of layers. I walked out of ParaNorman feeling like I'd seen a new spin on the "outcast savior" trope.
The first two thirds of the movie feel like a solidly likable coming-of-age comedy — and then in the final third it really starts to feel more profound and emotional. I can't go into much more detail without getting spoilery, but the ending feels powerful enough, and well-thought-out enough, that it makes everything that's come before seem a lot cooler and more amazing than it seemed at the time. A good ending can really redeem and reshape a story, and that's very much the case here — everything else is solid, but the ending is great.
Norman's town has lived with a huge supernatural legacy for hundreds of years, and somewhere along the way this past has become a local legend, to be turned into crappy school pageants and tourist-trap theatrics. A major thread running through ParaNorman is the notion that the mindless conformity that oppresses Norman goes hand in hand with a lazy mythologizing of the past. We tell fake stories about our history to support a worldview that crushes people's individuality in the present.
And this film reminded me of My Bodyguard and other classic comedies about a kid who doesn't fit in and gets mistreated for it. The great strength of ParaNorman was the way that it makes you feel his oppression without ever going too far or becoming too brutal or intense. It's very much a kid-friendly movie with a lot of sweetness, but you'll recognize your own terrible high school experiences writ large.
ParaNorman is one movie where the attention to detail really shows through. Of all the stop-motion films I've seen lately, this is the one where the "sets" seemed the most like real places, and the characters seemed to be the most at home in their environment. There are tons of little touches that add to the reality of the movie's world, or create extra little bits of humor. Despite a lot of silliness throughout the film, it never loses the reality of the setting, or lets go of the sense of place.
The comedy ranges from sort of broad caricature to weird physical comedy to small character-driven humor, and the shifts feel pretty effortless. There are a few laugh-out-loud sequences in the film, like one where a guy is trying to get a candy bar out of a stubborn vending machine while zombies are advancing on him.
ParaNorman is a seriously sweet movie, with a lot of compassion for all its characters, even the annoying ones. As a take on the ostracized hero, this film feels downright powerful at times. And it's a great film to take your friends (and your kids) to, because it's such a great celebration of the astounding power of weirdos.