ParaNorman – Review
A misunderstood boy takes on ghosts, zombies and grown-ups to save his town from a centuries-old curse.
We are all done with our K-O-Ween 31 Days of Halloween feature but Autumn is still in full swing. With that in mind, why not spend the month of November looking at a whole bunch of horror movies set in the Fall? Characterised by thick coats, fallen brown leaves, and an almost festive feeling. I can’t be the only one who finds horror movies set in the autumn somewhat comforting? I’ll be reviewing a whole bunch of these movies up until December and we will be starting off with stop motion horror comedy ParaNorman.
Sure, some of you may be asking why I am reviewing a kid’s film? Well, everyone needs an entry point to horror and animated movies are the perfect option. Not entirely dissimilar from earlier stop motion horror movie Coraline, ParaNorman was released in 2012 and features a much stronger comedy leaning. Hilarious throughout but with a strong message about acceptance, ParaNorman is the perfect horror movie to watch with your kids. That’s not to say there is nothing to offer adults here. This is a movie with a sharp sense of wit and a a desire to make sure everyone has a good time. As always, I will give a quick spoiler free breakdown of the movie so feel free to skip that if you like.
How Was Your Halloween?
I hope you guys had a fantastic Halloween. Whether you spent it with friends and family or just used it as an opportunity for some quality alone time, Halloween always rocks. I had a brilliant time. My partner and I headed out to grab some snacks, she carved an insanely impressive Hollow Knight themed pumpkin, we watched a few horror movies and ate entirely too much. As you may know, October was a busy month for Knockout Horror. We reviewed a movie a day for the entirety of the month. This will be a theme every year during October so you know where to come to help you pick your horror viewing.
November is going to be a little less busy so expect three to four reviews a week for our Fall Themed Horror month. December, however, will feature a Christmas themed horror review every day of Advent and one for New Year’s Eve. Our Awful Advent 25 Days of Christmas feature is going to be essential reading. Some of these movies are going to be absolutely terrible, others are complete horror classics. Keep your eyes peeled on the 1st of December for the start of Awful Advent.
ParaNorman – Synopsis
Norman, voiced by Kodi Smit-McPhee, is a somewhat misunderstood 11 year old boy living in the fictional town of Blithe Hollow in Massachusetts. Ostracised and bullied by the people around him, Norman appears to have the ability to talk to the dead. He frequently has conversations with his deceased grandma, voiced by Elaine Stritch in her last performance before her 2014 death, and his walk to school is populated by the ghosts of the many people who have passed away in the town.
Arriving at school, the word “Freak” has been written on his locker by local school bully Alvin, voiced by Christopher Mintz-Plasse. Seemingly used to this, Norman wipes it off before noticing another child across from him has suffered the same treatment. Neil, voiced by Tucker Albrizzi, is a somewhat overweight child who is bullied for his size. Neil looks over at Norman sympathetically before being dragged off to class by a friend.
Norman, along with his class mates, rehearses an upcoming school play depicting the trial and sentencing of a local witch. On his way home from school, Neil approaches Norman and suggests that they stick together to avoid the bullies. Suddenly, the boys are approached by Norman’s estranged uncle Mr. Prenderghast, voiced by John Goodman. Mr. Pernderghast is considered to be something of a local “weirdo” and Norman has been told to avoid him. Prenderghast tells Norman that he knows about his special powers and that he will soon have to pass on his yearly ritual to protect the town. Confused, Neil scares the local man off with a pot of spicy humus and the two head back to Neil’s house.
Conversations with the Dead – Synopsis Cont.
Back at Neil’s house, Norman tells him he can see his recently deceased pet dog. Neil, overjoyed, now completely believes in Norman and his powers. Later we see Mr. Prenderghast holding a book in his shack in the woods. Seemingly having suffered from breathing difficulties for a long time, Prenderghast suddenly passes away. His ghost, still being attached to the world as he has unfinished business, leaves his body.
The school play that the class have been rehearsing for takes place that night. The kids, mostly completely unenthusiastic about performing, are shocked when Norman has an outburst. While taking part in a scene, the world around Norman suddenly tears away and is replaced with a dark forest. Norman approaches a tree which suddenly develops a voice and tells him that the dead will rise. Returning to the regular world, Norman screams about how the dead are coming. Norman’s parents, seemingly embarrassed, take him home and his dad chastises him for not being “normal”.
The next day, while attempting to avoid scorn from the school kids, Norman hides out in the bathroom. Propped up on the seat, the toilet suddenly lifts pushing Norman against the wall. Mr. Penderghast’s ghost appears out of the toilet. He tells Norman that he has passed away and that there is a book in his hands back at his shack. Norman needs to take the book and read the story at a local witch’s grave before sundown that day. If he doesn’t, the whole town will suffer the consequences.
Fall Themed Horror Season
Okay so, as mentioned above, throughout November we will be focusing on Fall themed horror movies. I suppose I am going to have to be a little loose with the criteria here. There aren’t a great deal of horror movies that feature Autumn as a pivotal part of the plot. It’s more of a simple setting and little else.
For movies to qualify for this feature they simply need to have that autumn feel. Brown leaves are a must, obviously. Autumn holidays such as Thanksgiving and Halloween definitely qualify. If it appears to be, at least, partly set in the autumn months then we are good. When it comes to ParaNorman, the time period the movie is set in is somewhat ambiguous. We clearly have a blanket of fallen leaves as Norman is running through the woods, however, so I think it counts. Some may disagree but I can’t be too strict here or I will be really scraping the barrel for movies that qualify.
Hilarious Horror Comedy
ParaNorman is a horror comedy that does a fantastic job of blending scares with a legitimately hilarious script. Tremendously funny, in parts, it is a genuinely easy watch. Norman is a relatable character that is considered to be strange by the people around him. Despite this, he seems to harbour no ill feelings towards his friends and family. He just wants people to accept him and his special gift. Norman is a very sympathetic character and easy to like which is an important part of enjoying a movie like this.
Surrounded by an interesting cast of characters, ParaNorman risks leaning into cliché a little a times. It does, however, manage to subvert expectations in at least one regard. The somewhat stereotyped cast, however, make for some extremely funny moments. Rarely resorting to innuendo, characters like Neil and Mitch will have you laughing your ass off. Norman’s dad is a perfect representation of an ignorant generation afraid of change and his mum is full of brilliant lines courtesy of her somewhat jaded life view. Comedy seems, almost, to be the primary focus here and that shines through. There is rarely a moment where the serious nature of the plot is not punctuated by a witty remark or visual gag.
Likely a little bit too scary for very young children, the movie actually delivers on the horror element in a big way. Utilising a very serious underlying plot based on the horrific witch trials of the 1600s, some of the scenes are genuinely quite sad. There is a message of acceptance here that is reinforced throughout. Themes of forgiveness are also important, as is the need to highlight that it is okay to be different and to ignore people that judge you.
ParaNorman released around the same time as Tim Burton’s stop motion horror comedy Frankenweenie. Expected to take a back seat to Disney’s high profile release, I think it is fair to say that Laika’s ParaNorman held its own despite the competition. For me, personally, ParaNorman is a much better movie than Frankenweenie and, without a doubt, it is a lot funnier. Frankenweenie felt slow and, almost, a little boring. ParaNorman basically throws all of its cards into the middle of the table from the get go and never lets up.
The children’s horror movie genre is a fairly well developed one. Films such as The Nightmare Before Christmas, Coraline, and Corpse Bride really laid the foundation for animated horror. It is a somewhat crowded market place given the high profile nature of many of these movies. To stand out is fairly difficult. To do it in a unique manner without seeming like you are imitating your competitors is an even bigger task.
ParaNorman, in my opinion, really succeeds at this and has carved out its very own place in the animated horror genre. Leaning more heavily into the comedy element, it has a strong “feel good” message that sets it apart from similar films. It takes itself seriously but also places a high value on being thoroughly enjoyable. Unlike some of the other movies in this genre, it is also in a tremendous rush to get to the action. The proverbial shit hits the fan at around the 35 minute mark and it never lets up from there. While perhaps not the ideal pacing for an adult, some may have preferred a little more plot development. Children are likely to find it easier to stay engaged with ParaNorman due to this focus on early escalation.
Stop Motion Frights
It’s noteworthy that many of the movies I have mentioned today are stop motion. Whether this is coincidence or by design is a matter that is up for debate. The somewhat janky movement that comes from the animation techniques used with stop motion seem to fit the horror genre perfectly. ParaNorman leans into this slightly while being somewhat smoother than some of its counterparts.
ParaNorman further utilised the 3D printed parts technique employed in Laika’s previous stop motion movie Coraline. Whereas Coraline used black and white 3D printers, ParaNorman became the first stop motion film in history to use full colour 3D printed parts for its models. This leads to characters having a wide range of facial expressions. The variety of emotions displayed by the cast only adds to the horror and comedy element.
ParaNorman’s animation is very smooth for stop motion. At times if almost feels like a CG movie. Sets are decently large and full of interesting landmarks. Scenes are busy and full of life. Lighting is fantastic and does a great job of adding atmosphere. It’s all just very nice to look at. ParaNorman feels like a real love letter to some of the Zombie movies of old. There is a heavy use of green hues and shadows that make the movie feel almost as if it came out of the 80s.
Character designs are unique and highly stylised. Though much of the cast is somewhat cookie cutter, the hilarious design choices really help them to stand out. Norman’s mall girl sister Courtney, voiced by Anna Kendrick, is your typical blonde haired valley girl type character. Her ridiculously wide hips and tiny waist, however, add a hilarious twist to this look. Equally, Neil’s jock brother Mitch, voiced by controversial actor Casey Affleck, is farcically broad shouldered and muscular. None of the designs here are plain, they are always highly comical despite the stereotypical nature of the characters.
Well Filmed and Excellent Sound Production
ParaNorman was made to be released in both 2D and 3D. We have a 3D projector so decided to throw the clock back to the 2010’s, don our 3D glasses and watch in the way the movie was intended. I have to say, it looks fantastic in 3D. There is tons of depth and no major overuse of arbitrary 3D elements flying at the screen. ParaNorman is just as gorgeous in 2D, however. There is no need to give yourself a headache to enjoy it. Filmed using a combination of Canon 5D Mark II DSLR cameras mounted on special rigs designed to take shots from multiple angles. The pay off is fantastic. While not up there with Coraline, it is still leagues ahead of most of the stop motion movies around.
The sound production here deserves special mention. Watching with a surround sound system, some of the scenes nearly shifted our couch with how impactful they were. As with most modern movies, there is a big disparity between loud and quiet scenes. This is especially notable with later scenes featuring the appearance of something in the sky. It sounds amazing but it can most definitely shock you if you aren’t prepared.
Decent Voice Acting
Voice acting is decent throughout. Featuring a well known cast, Kodi Smit-McPhee is fine as Norman. Anna Kendrick is very fitting as mall girl Courtney. John Goodman is excellent as Mr. Prenderghast, as is Leslie Mann and Jeff Garlin as Norman’s parents. Casey Affleck is pretty uninspired as Mitch but the character still has some hilarious lines. I felt as though Christopher Mintz-Plasse didn’t have much to work with as fairly dull bully Alvin but he does okay with what he has.
Underrated actor Jodelle Ferland makes an appearance as Aggie and, as usual, she is great. She offers a sense of nuance and depth to an, ultimately, sympathetic character. The standout performance for me, however, was Tucker Albrizzi as Neil. He is by far the highlight of the entire film and his delivery is spot on. There is one scene, in particular, where he tells Norman to throw a stick for his dead dog. It’s a simple sequence but Albrizzi’s delivery of the lines had me laughing my ass off.
An Important Message
It’s easy to forget when watching ParaNorman that, despite its focus on comedy and horror, it has an important message to give. The entire movie is a reminder to be yourself regardless of how people react to you. It is important for children to see movies that teach them to accept people despite their differences. Movies like this can really improve a child’s social development. It helps that ParaNorman does this in a number of ways. The film never feels judgemental or preachy and the message gets across fantastically well.
It is also worth noting that this was the first mainstream animated movie to feature an openly gay character. A big risk considering the attitudes of many parents when it comes to this topic. The fact that the movie’s developers were willing to take the criticism and abuse from small minded people is commendable. This also works to further reinforce the movie’s message and shows that the team are directly invested in it.
Is it a Knockout?
While maybe not being the most obviously fall themed horror movie that will appear in this feature, ParaNorman is a fantastic animated comedy horror that offers up some genuinely fantastic scenes. Produced by Laika Entertainment as the follow up to their mega hit Coraline, ParaNorman is beautifully animated and features an important message.
Continuing Laika's impressive run of gorgeous stop motion movies, ParaNorman was the first animated movie to use full colour 3D printed parts. This offers the characters in the movie a massive range of emotions and facial expressions only adding to the comedy and horror elements.
Despite having some scenes that may scare younger viewers, ParaNorman's focus is, primarily, on comedy and it never lets up. Funny from the start right through to the finish. There are a few points in the movie that will have you laughing out loud. Some may find the movie a little too long and the focus on action over plot development may be a bit disappointing for some. Kids are sure to love the amount of action on offer here, however, and should stay entertained for the entire film.