This review contains details that, whilst not really spoilers, have so far not been advertised in the promotional material for ParaNorman. As such, you may prefer to read this after you have seen it. The short story is: I liked it.
The Salem witch trials were part of a moment in history that have been overstudied and exaggerated. The killings of several women and children, under the accusations of witchcraft, were undoubtedly terrible, but they have somehow entered the public conscious in a way that belies their impact (which, in the long run, was negligible). There seems to be a morbid fascination with the way a society can turn against itself and commit acts of violence even to the people within it; the result is that ‘Witch hunt’ has been popularised as a term and the town of Salem now has a tourism industry based on these killings. This macabre interest in the witch trials has now somehow worked its way into children’s cinema, as ParaNorman displays when it takes a turn towards darkness as it emerges that the witch who is responsible for the roaming undead was a little girl who got killed by her townspeople.
There’s nothing wrong with a kid’s film being scary. This writer has strong memories of being scared witless by Pinocchio as a child, but without any lasting detrimental effect on his life (that he’s aware of). So a zombie film aimed at a young audience is not, essentially, a bad thing. But ParaNorman has an uncomfortable fixation on death, both in the film as whole and with the lead character, that means the film really should be approached with caution if you plan on taking you children, or someone else’s. The Salem-esque (the town isn’t actually Salem, but the brilliantly named Blithe Hollow) plot device mentioned above adds an especially grim tone, and culminates with a conversation full of dangerous mixed messages about death and the afterlife. The film is funny and surreal enough that it may not be an issue at all – many children seemed to be enjoying it during the screening, and perhaps this is just the worries of an over-thinking (sort of) adult. The other good news is that, even if you aren’t taking kids, ParaNorman is a superb bit of horror-comedy, full of stuff for adults to enjoy, too.
The film opens with an homage to classic zombie movies, and there’s a nice joke as a screaming girl is set upon by a zombie so slow she pauses mid scream, confused. It’s the first in many a long line of nods and winks to genre tropes, keeping one foot firmly planted in comedy even when things get seriously scary. There’s some surprisingly gross body humour, and the decomposing state of the walking dead is used to excellent effect. For those who are bigger fans of zombie films than my rather uneducated self, there are doubtlessly tons more in jokes and references that will go over everyone else’s heads. It’s clearly an affectionately made film and, regardless of it being an animation, is successful as both a solid horror film and a comedy.
But the real appeal of ParaNorman lies in the stunning animation. In the review of Aardman’s Pirates! earlier in the week, the rather foolhardy comment was made that it will probably be the most visually impressive animation of the year. A few days later Laika’s stop motion wizardry made that comment seem rather ridiculous. The fluidity of the animation here – done through a medium well known for it’s jerky movements – is nothing short of astonishing. The characters, although they look highly stylised and caricatured, move realistically and it beggars belief that this was not done on computers. Even beyond the more banal motions like walking and sitting down, the animation retains a smoothness that means the action sequences are properly gripping. Spikes erupt from the ground, cars career round corners and buildings fall apart with great flair and energy. The action sequences here are as exciting, if not more so, than many a live action film; the directors making perfect use of the medium to capture scenes that would be almost unfeasible otherwise. It’s no exaggeration to say that ParaNorman sets a new standard of excellence in stop motion.
So it’s a fantastic slice of horror cinema, a superlative work of animation, and is really funny to boot. It’s just a shame that it leans too heavily towards darkness, creating a tonal ambiguity that means ParaNorman stops just a little short of brilliance.