I do like reviewing films aimed at children. They exist as this area of film making that can vary wildly in tone, technique and thematics from one film to the next that it almost seems that any subject could be touched upon. A problem comes up though that when you tackle certain subjects in a children’s film a film maker has to be careful regarding what you can and can’t show. You can do film suitable for kids that tells them it’s OK to be different but you can’t outright have the film say that it’s OK to be gay, for example. Most young kids aren’t ready to tackle a subject like that. So you use other thematics to send the same message. Paranorman is a film that isn’t satisfied with passing just one tough message. It is a film that intends to stick with a child into adulthood by not hiding its subject matter, its themes or by pulling any punches. In many ways it is one of the most daring kid’s films in some time. Click the link for me not glossing over stuff for you.
Paranorman follows an 11 year old child, conveniently for the title’s sake, called Norman (Kodi Smit-McPhee) who’s a little different from other children his age. Much like that creepy kid from Sixth Sense Norman can see ghosts. Lots and lots of ghosts. Fortunately for me he doesn’t send shivers up my spine like Haley Joel Osment did. Unfortunately for Norman he scares the bejeebus out of most of his town. He’s shunned and bullied by pretty much every kid at his school. They even move out of his way in fear. Norman is a very kind hearted, good willed child but his insistence of his ability has led everyone to believe he’s weird and more than a little crazy. Even his father (played by Jeff Garlin) thinks Norman isn’t right in the head. His mother (Leslie Mann) just hopes that it’s Norman’s way of dealing with the death of his Grandmother (Elaine Stritch), with whom he talks to every day. One day he is told by a local loon Mr Prenderghast (John Goodman) that Norman must stop a witches curse from enveloping the town in evil things. This task was Prenderghast’s before but he seems to be coming down with a severe case of death. Naturally, nothing goes quite to plan, and Norman has to set out to make things right with the unwilling help of his sister Courtney (Anna Kendrick) and his new best friend Neil (Tucker Albrizzi). They’re joined by Neil’s brother Mitch (Casey Affleck) and school bully Alvin (Christopher Mintz-Plasse). Many ghoulish hijinks ensue.
Paranorman excels in many areas, so yes, this will be one of my gushing glowing reviews. I personally love a kid’s film that doesn’t treat it’s audience like they’re precious little creatures that need to be protected. Paranorman confronts death right from the start. It travels with death through it’s 90 minute runtime and comes to terms with death by the closing minutes. The story hinges on a murder of a someone believed to be a witch 300 years ago, an event the town seems to celebrate and see as a defining moment in it’s history. The town is littered with horror themed shops, there’s a statue of a witch in the centre of town and the town’s children put on a school play re-enacting the burning of the witch every year. For most films like this dealing with death would be enough of a theme. Paranorman isn’t satisfied with just that.
The secondary theme regards the effects of being different from others and finding where you belong. The way this is shown really doesn’t hold back. Norman’s journey to school shows him greeting every ghost he sees, followed by the town’s people reacting to him as if he is something to be feared. I’ve mentioned his treatment at school, this is smartly paralleled with the character of Neil who receives a similar level of bullying due to being overweight. This instantly creates a more relatable connection between Norman’s feelings of being alienated by others and those of a character with a physical problem that anyone can recognise. It’s an effective way of helping a child connect the dots and may even allow any that have bullied before think about those actions as they have already empathised with the main character by this point. They see that what’s happening to Norman is not far removed from how a child being bullied at their school would feel.
A few years back Laika made the beautifully animated Coraline, which was directed by Henry Selick. Coraline similarly made any effort it could to not talk down to children regarding its themes. Paranorman goes way beyond that quite often tip toes into territories often only reserved for adult humour. There’s many a joke that really do work on two levels. Laika understand that children today will understand the occasional rude joke. They never overstep the mark but they certainly creep right next to what could be considered the limits of decency you could have in a film for children. In some ways it reminds me of the sort of humour and content films like The Goonies had in the 80s.
Animation is as impeccable as Laika have become known for over the last few years. This was the first film where they used 3D colour printers to create all the pieces needed during the animation process for replacement animation, the act of replacing body parts for each frame such as the face and hands. The benefit of this was that they were able to produce all the parts they’d need to animate far quicker, already coloured, and as such were able to provide a little extra fluidity over the normal stop frame animation techniques. The overall effect of their animation is akin to that mouse circus sequence in Coraline but for the full 90s minutes. It is that mesmerising. The craftsmanship of Paranorman is such that you can feel just how much they cared about this story as something other than a product to put kids in cinema seats. There’s more soul and energy in this film than anything else being made by the biggest animation studios.
With the dark subject matter and the occasional close to the edge joke this may be an animated films some parents would like to watch first before showing to their little ones. Not because it’s too dark or rude, as such, but more because it is so unapologetic regarding how it presents its themes that some younger children may not be ready for it just yet. That said, they may well still love the film as it plays very well as a goofy, scary adventure too. A good kid’s film should scare them a little anyway.
You could pick the odd fault with Paranorman here and there, the film has near tunnel vision regarding it’s plot progression during the second act with less time being spent on character interaction and internal conflict. But this is all brought home in a final act that doesn’t let anything come loose and is as tightly written as the opening portion of the film. It is also where the majority of the film’s gut punches are kept as this is where the film really brings home the darker aspects of the story. When the film is finished you will likely be left with a feeling that you just saw something that hasn’t been tainted by the hands of a marketing department, or a toy manufacturer or any sort of attempt to be “cool” with “the kids”. Paranorman is it’s own beast and, much like where the Wild Things Are and Fantastic Mr Fox, it deserves to be in any child’s growing film collection.