If we remove nostalgia from the equation, I think most of us would agree that modern children’s films are objectively better than the Disney morality tales that we grew up with. Or, at least, we would agree that they are easier for parents to enjoy. DreamWorks, Pixar and their ilk were at the vanguard of this change from “children’s films,” to “family friendly films,” which had jokes and subtleties for the older generation; for the guardians who have been begged, dragged and otherwise persuaded to take their little darlings to the cinema.
ParaNorman continues this practice with some more adult jokes and references to classic horror films. For example, Norman’s ringtone is the haunting Halloween theme tune, his friend adorns Jason Voohrees’ iconic hockey mask, and the entire film plays like an ode to the quintessential horror films produced by Hammer in the 50s and 60s. The most obvious inspirations however, are Stephen King’s small town America setting, and obviously The Sixth Sense. The eponymous hero, Norman, can see dead people! He can communicate with these ethereal figures – the ghosts of those who have unfinished business on earth.
This talent comes with its fair share of problems: Norman’s mum doesn’t believe him, his dad wishes he could just be a normal child, and everyone at his school thinks he is a freak. This drives Norman to melancholy and what would be classified in an adult as depression. Eventually, he is cheered up by the endearingly optimistic Neil, another victim of relentless bullying from Norman’s school. The two strike up an almost immediate friendship which is cemented when Neil protects his new friend with some spicy hummus.
The bulk of the rest of the story comes in the form of a zombie invasion, raised by the resident witch to coincide with the 300th anniversary of her execution (the obsession with time keeping that seems so important among supernatural beings is something I’ll never understand). Finally, Norman’s unique skill set looks like it may be of some use. The undead are a type of dead too, right? The remaining hour or so of ParaNorman is filled with the exploits of Normal and a ragtag band of companions as they try to resist the hoard and confront the painfully misunderstood witch.
The entire film looks amazing; a relatively unique art style and the stop-motion filming technique combine to produce a very distinctive visual experience. The last few scenes in particular are quite unlike anything I’ve seen before and are almost worth the price of admission alone. This is hardly surprising as the film comes from Laika, the animation studio behind 2009’s Coraline. The voice acting in the film is also up to the high standards set by the studio’s debut and, unlike a lot of animated films, doesn’t rely too heavily upon well known voices. However, the film does drag a bit towards the end and might have been better with more ruthless editing.
Children don’t really care too much about all of that though, they simply want to enjoy the film in its entirety, not dissect it to its individual elements, and enjoy it they probably will. Some parts are quite funny and others could provide some scares for younger children (admittedly, that’s coming from a man who was terrified by Casper the Friendly Ghost as a child). Additionally, ParaNorman offers a refreshing take on death, loss and forgiveness, which provide the lesson of the story. Despite this, ParaNorman does not match the standards of genre defining films such as Shrek and Monsters Inc. in its ability to please a diverse audience, and therefore I would find it difficult to offer a strong recommendation to a student unburdened with the responsibility of parenthood.