Everywhere we turn, there's fear. On the news, nations are warring; at home, the economy is collapsing; and as random acts of public violence continue to make headlines with alarming frequency, even the simple act of taking the family to see a summer blockbuster is enough to make some folks break into a cold sweat. Struggle as we might to prevent this constant stream of negativity from affecting our behavior, sometimes the simple act of trying to stay optimistic seems like a full-time job.
So why, you may ask, would a critic start his review for an animated summer film aimed squarely at the kiddie set with such a somber, serious-minded tone? The answer is simple: The "lesson" in Chris Butler and Sam Fell's darkly gorgeous fantasy adventure ParaNorman is all about fear, and how the way we respond to it ultimately dictates who we are. In a world that sometimes seems unrelentingly dark even to jaded adults, that's a critical concept for today's children to grasp. By serving it up in a gruesome, colorful, and, yes, at times frightening package, Butler and Fell provide us with the tools to understand the mechanics of fear and how to effect positive change by not letting it go to our heads.
Eleven-year-old Norman Babcock (voice of Kodi Smit-McPhee) is a young misfit with a remarkable gift: He sees dead people. Although Norman's clairvoyance allows him the unique opportunity to enjoy the company of his beloved grandmother (Elaine Stritch) long after she has ceased to be, it also drives his frustrated father Perry (Jeff Garlin) and popularity-obsessed sister Courtney (Anna Kendrick) up the wall at home and makes him the target of dim-witted bully Alvin (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) at school. His only friend is portly Neil (Tucker Albrizzi), who isn't exactly a beacon of coolness. When Norman's deceased uncle Prenderghast (John Goodman), a local pariah, warns the young boy that he must save their small town of Blithe Hollow from a witch's curse that has plagued the area for centuries, the young creature-feature addict isn't entirely sure how to respond -- that is, until the sky turns red, the clouds start to swirl, and the dead rise up from their graves. Now, as a terrified mob takes to the streets with torches in hand, it's up to Norman, Courtney, Alvin, Neil, and Neil's older brother Mitch (Casey Affleck) to put things right, even if it means confronting the 300-year-old curse that has haunted Blithe Hollow ever since the notorious witch hunts of the 18th century.
At the onset, ParaNorman looks like a grind-house picture for tweens. Dripping with hyper-saturated colors, textured with a faux-grainy film stock, and kicking things off with a playfully gruesome zombie attack, it has the air of a fright flick tailor-made for grown-up horror hounds to share with wee ones who aren't quite ready for more intense fare like The Evil Dead or The Frighteners. Even when the movie is hinting at its major theme (which becomes more prominent as it goes on), any meaningful message takes a backseat to gags that set a lighthearted tone despite the sometimes ghoulish imagery. It's during this portion of the film that we really get to drink up ParaNorman's morbidly expressionistic set and character designs, and savor the nuanced performances by the talented vocal cast. Later, by the time the real action gets underway, we're having so much fun that we may not even notice as the theme of fear becomes increasingly crucial to the plot -- and it's precisely that subtle approach that gives the movie true soul.
Just when the going starts to get creepy, Norman's grandmother offers him some sage advice: It's okay to feel fear, and it's how we respond to that fear that reveals our true character. Back in the 1700s, fear swept through Blithe Hollow, and the way the townspeople responded to it resulted in a tragedy that would haunt the locale for a long time. As panic sweeps through the streets, history threatens to repeat itself. Fear can be a vicious cycle. Even for adults, this isn't necessarily easy to understand. By using the Salem witch trials as a model, screenwriter Butler does a wonderful job of weaving that concept into the framework of a picture that uses traditional horror tropes. It's an ambitious approach, but the filmmakers pull it off with style to spare and succeed in delivering some memorably frightful thrills in the process. For moviegoers who tend to look down their nose at horror films, ParaNorman offers proof positive that the genre that gets us screaming can also have real substance.