ParaNorman Revisited

(To celebrate the release of Missing Link, we’re revisiting the stop-motion animated films of Laika this week and discussing why they’re so special. Today: ParaNorman is the kind of kid-friendly horror movie that could transform a youngster into a genre fan for life.)

My transformation into the horror-lovin’ goblin y’all know around these parts was not a graceful one. Early childhood memories are those of anxious fear. Hiding from Child’s Play commercials, avoiding Party City depots during Halloween, and so on. It wasn’t until my later high school years where “so bad it’s good” trash masterpieces sparked my spooky-but-outrageous interests. College is where I dove headfirst into the meanest, most vile terrifiers the genre has to offer, then started gradually working backward. Again, not very methodical. In a different life, I would – and should – have started with a balanced introductory horror tale for the whole family such as Laika’s ParaNorman: satire, homage, and chilling goosebumps bedtime story all rolled into one stop-motion-magnificent package.

It’s no surprise that Laika cuts through festering flesh to expose the immeasurable deepness of our human experience. By embracing horror, creators Chris Butler and Sam Fell provide commentary on death, grief, and acceptance with unflinching steadiness. Norman (voiced by Kodi Smit-McPhee) can see bodyless souls trapped on Earth until their unfinished business is completed, whether that be protection from a townwide witch’s curse or grandmother’s vow as a guardian angel. ParaNorman wastes no time becoming an allegory for providing comfort in death since those long buried still live on in our remembrance or actions, never mincing words nor message.

So how does Laika achieve this understanding without scaring children into existential confusion? Through a genre veteran’s appreciative lens, no less? By embracing what horror fans have known all along – there is no greater, more comforting feeling than confronting our fears face to cackling face.

ParaNorman is an even-handed starting point for aspiring horror fans that eases into heavier themes without malicious haunts or next-level grotesqueries. Laika decorates Massachusetts’ witchy wonderland Blithe Hollow with broomsticks galore and crafts wire-’n-rubber zombies as cartoonish ghouls first chasing, then fleeing from angry citizens. Time spent with Neil’s (Tucker Albrizzi) floating halved pooch positions for laughs, same as the collection of greenish specters Norman greets each morning (cement-shoed mobster, pilot skewered in a tree, greaser). Undead pilgrims represent what we *shouldn’t* fear just as much as Norman’s discouraged gift, uniting worlds both rotten and fresh. It’s playful horror-lite served through adolescent experience, but still very much horror. Laika’s greatest trick is steeping Norman’s reality in provocative macabreness without sacrificing age-appropriate teachings. Death is a hard pill to swallow, but ParaNorman massages it down.

What’s vital to ParaNorman is how Butler and Fell recognize the majority demographic their audience will reflect, meaning meta-fun still plays paramount. Staire is key to Norman’s after-dark investigations, instituted as Norman watches some cheapo B-movie zombie sleaze during the film’s open. The fake movie within a movie’s lead actress glances at her watch as a zombie shambles across frame with intrepid slowness, a boom mic dips into view – and Norman *loves* it. Easy laughs at the expense of cheesy midnight schlock, but mockery achieves something important – it establishes cinematic imagination vs. realistic expectations. Children watching aren’t taught to scream and flee at the sight of monsters. Horror movies are positioned as “artful” entertainment, empowering young perceptions instead of petrifying.

Satire also establishes the gravity of Norman’s peril, given how late-night horror flicks aren’t drawn from fact – unless you live in Blithe Hollow and some kooky hermit (Mr. Prenderghast, voiced by John Goodman) passes on the duty of keeping a wicked witch’s soul at bay each year. Just as genre in-jokes assure less seasoned viewers that horror movies can’t hurt you, Norman’s inherited duties intensify because these zombies *are* real to the wunderkind medium. Humor works as a safety blanket in keeping tonality at a constant Halloween-y jubilance, but isn’t *just* for laughs. Satirical skewering proves a competently rich understanding of horror’s inner-most workings – and how to manipulate each gear to advantage.

Despite intended viewership being too young to have devoured Wes Craven’s entire A Nightmare On Elm Street franchise or George A. Romero’s unholy trilogy, ParaNorman still honors the classics. When first-time horror experiencers eventually graduate to big boy and big girl watches, they’ll realize all the iconic nods Laika hides. From the obvious – Neil standing next to blowing-in-the-breeze laundry wearing a hockey mask (Friday The 13th: A New Beginning) – to slighter cinematography choices – Mr. Prenderghast appearing then disappearing from behind hedges – homages subliminally pull from horror’s everlasting tome. Influence and satire go hand-in-hand, and once again scarier images (Jason Voorhees) are diluted into palatable first-look forms.

Butler and Fell repurpose multiple genre signatures and one-off odes more impassioned adult viewers (or learned pupils) will catch. Is Norman’s ringtone the Halloween theme? An easy John Carpenter nod. “Bub,” Neil’s undead dog? Day Of The Dead squeaks in a reference. A board game titled “The Hands Of Fate” in Norman’s room? In my world, that’s a direct tie to Manos: The Hands Of Fate. All additives that won’t be fully appreciated at the moment by novices, but lightbulbs will continue to spark every time fans of ParaNorman check another nightmarish watch off their list. Unknowing students shaped by the “subtlety” of Laika.

It’s evident by this point that yes, ParaNorman stakes its mark as a family-friendly ode to the outcasts – a testament to “weirdness” – but there is inarguably a horror story at play. Not about attacking zombies, mind you. Blithe Hollow raises their pitchforks at the sight of “The Judge’s” (Bernard Hill) decomposing clan of once “black magic” extinguishers. As Norman’s tasked with keeping evil at bay, a lack of information leads to the emergence of Aggie (voiced by Jodelle Ferland) – this swirling tempest face formed from clouds that looms over Blithe Hollow’s resident fearmongers.

Blithe Hollow is rich in Salem-adjacent pioneer histories in that witches were punished and killed for their “sins.” One such victim of the time was youngster Aggie, at the decision of “The Judge” and his co-conspirators. She was just a child with gifts, much like Norman, but as humans often do, “The Judge” let fears morph into hatred. ParaNorman’s emotional core exposes how we combat what can’t be understood with disgust instead of understanding because it’s much easier to distance ourselves from what shouldn’t be versus comprehending something new or unknown. Aggie and Norman are punished alike – one by death, the other by social ostracizing even within his family – and while Laika sticks their bleary-eyed ending (I cried, so what), it’s not before embracing the horrors of revenge. True, perilous horror.

For a film that spends most scenes toying with detached zombie appendages and referencing Scooby Doo, Where Are You!, Norman’s confrontation in Aggie’s dimension creates woodland dreadfulness with sufficient tension and danger. Spikey tree branches stab from underneath soiled ground with dagger sound effects as Norman scampers away. Aggie flickers in-and-out as an electrical current, like something out of Shocker or maybe Electricity Gremlin? As Aggie unleashes her anger on Norman, he’s violently tossed around in ragdoll fashion by an almighty sorceress consumed with rage. While her enormous facial reconstruction tears reality apart – Norman forced to hop on dangling chunks of land to reach Aggie – ParaNorman thrills as any horror adventure would. The film establishes its own stakes, carves personal signatures, and pushes viewers to the brink of excitable worry. All within a genre-soaked safe space that’s permissible for audiences big and small.

Dedicated as another masterwork of practical Laika magic, ParaNorman is stunning. Every interchangeable character composite, colorization that’s robust as to avoid becoming a dully dampened grim pastiche, inspired casting – dare this critic honor ParaNorman as Laika’s most accomplished title? Christopher Mintz-Plasse the bully, Casey Affleck the beefy meathead, Anna Kendrick the hair-twirling cheerleader type. From twisted woodlands that snarl with fairytale manipulation to Aggie’s peeling away of Norman’s not-quite-normal viewscape, Laika’s creative team designs a meticulous love letter to spooks, frights, and bumps in the night that proves ageless entertainment can be skillfully astonishing. An imagining of horror only attainable through innocent eyes.

ParaNorman is a cinematic guide that’s destined to usher in new generations of horror faithful. It’s as stripped-raw as you can ask, readily honest, and confident when laying out life’s bleakest anonymity. It’s a horror story with a happy ending, but one that doesn’t shy away from the finality of mortality. As other genres coddle and pad messages with marshmallow fluffiness, horror gives those who think and act “differently” a voice. It’s important to realize at a young age that everyone is scared and you’re never alone. Laika’s bewitched suburban spellcasting not only holds the key to unlocking horror’s empathetic and forthright essence (which stereotyping minds think doesn’t exist) but reassures that even the “oddest” child has their place in this unforgiving world – with or without ghost acquaintances.

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