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Film Review: ParaNorman

ParaNorman (2012; Directed by Sam Fell and Chris Butler)

An inventive animated adventure dotted with reverential nods to classics of film horror, ParaNorman is entertaining enough on a basic level while apparently comfortably occupying the conventional thematic territory of much recent Hollywood animation. It’s got the impeccable craft, clever sight gags and verbal wit that one ought to expect from an Aardman-trained stop-motion vet (this is Sam Fell, who co-directs with Chris Butler). But the elevation of ParaNorman to a position loftier than that held by your average run-of-the-mill big-screen cartoon romp (although it offers romping aplenty, too) is due to the film’s intelligent and even nuanced engagement with the social and historical terms of the outcast figure in America and beyond.

The central outcast figure in question is the titular Norman (voiced by Kodi Smit-McPhee), although he grants access to a host of other such pariahs via his embodiment of the archetype. Norman, like a spikey-hair Haley Joel Osment, can see and speak to the dead. No one else around him can do so, and so his ability (or more so his guileless approach of not hiding it) has made Norman into an outcast in his community. He is teased and bullied at school, regarded with curious distrust in the town at large, and is even greeted with frustrated denial by his family. His gift (or his curse) has made him different, and that difference has led to social exclusion. But when a crisis faces his community that is ideally suited to his talents, those who shunned him learn to overcome their prejudices and value and accept his distinctness.

This position aligns Norman with many other ostracized lead characters in recent feature animation, from the nerdy creative heroes of Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs and How to Train Your Dragon to curmudgeonly hermits like Shrek or Wall-E or Carl from Up. This archetype is so common that another recent animated film of note, Rango, included involved passages of quasi-academic meta-commentary on it. Of course, Rango’s more proximal target of criticism was the similar Hollywood Western archetype of the heroic frontier stranger, which only testifies to the prevalence of the ostracized hero figure who ultimately finds redemption and social recognition.

But I’m circling away from ParaNorman, and what makes it special relative to these other pieces of entertainment focused on similar themes. Norman’s town, Blithe Hollow, is patterned on Salem, Massachusetts, a town infamous for the witch hysteria, trials, and executions of its 17th century Puritan settlers that has since parlayed that infamy into a lucrative and kitschy tourist trade, especially during the Halloween season. The aforementioned crisis that faces Blithe Hollow (spoiler a-comin’) involves a similar witch hunt history. Four centuries past, a local tribunal of Pilgrim citizens sentenced a young girl named Agatha to death for practicing witchcraft. In revenge, she placed a curse on these elders that has only been kept at bay down to Norman’s day by diligent annual appeasement of her restless spirit. But that appeasement is at an end, and the so-called witch’s curse takes full effect on the town, unleashing her malevolent spirit and raising the corpses of the Puritans from the grave.

Though this material has been neutered a little upon delivery, it’s still heady stuff for a kid’s flick. But then, many of the film’s highlights are of a macabre nature, from the zombie Pilgrims losing limbs and even heads to a high-black-comedy sequence of Norman wresting a vital book away from the rigor-mortis clutches of the deceased guardian of the curse-secrets, a mountain of a homeless man voiced by John Goodman, so it’s perhaps par for the course. What is headiest about ParaNorman, though, is the layered exploration of the various consequences of the social exclusion of minorities and of difference.

Our pint-sized hero is not accepted by his peers, but then neither is his putative best friend Neil (Tucker Albrizzi), kind of a more obese, less remedial-class version of Ralph Wiggum. The transient Mr. Prenderghast, an isolated, ranting pill-popper who is spoken of like a human disease, is an object lesson for Norman (whose ghost-conversing gift he shares) concerning the social costs of irreconcilable difference. Even Neil’s muscular, jockish, mechanically-inclined older brother Mitch (a funny supporting role for Casey Affleck) is more of an outsider than he initially seems, as revealed in a great stinging parting punchline to the movie-length sexual interest shown in him by Norman’s cheerleader sister Courtney (Anna Kendrick, also very funny).

Surely this is indicative of some sort of digestive ailment for our hero.

But the plot’s grounding in the colonial witch hysteria links the gifted but misunderstood pariah archetype to more serious historical currents of persecution and oppression. ParaNorman makes a restrained but firm point that commercializing the witch hunts glosses over the narrow-minded moral horror at their core. The witch hunts, in early America as in Europe, targeted the outsiders, the oddballs, those who didn’t quite fit into the social fabric (very often unmarried and thus independent women), and humiliated, imprisoned, and sometimes killed them. The impulse feeding into this oppression and even elimination of social outcasts inspired the Third Reich’s Final Solution, ethnic cleansing in the former Yugoslavia, the Inquisition, the Armenian Genocide, and the list of horrors goes on. ParaNorman simplifies this impulse for its younger audience to an expression of the dominant class’ innate sense of fear, but that elides the way that such subjugation of social scapegoats can grant considerable power to the subjugators. These deadly pogroms are only the most extreme result of social division, but this is a film that recognizes that such reactions are hardly the most uncommon ones.

Most wonderfully and generously, though, ParaNorman turns the tables on the oppressors, has a laugh at their rigid ideology, and transforms them into remorseful and even sympathetic figures. The Puritan zombies initially pursue Norman and his comrades like standard horror-movie monsters, but their staunch Protestant ethics are hilariously shaken and overwhelmed when faced with Blithe Hollow’s modern hedonistic vices. The monsters become the targets of the town’s fearful and ignorant wrath instead of brandishing such wrath themselves, and it chastens them and allows them to humbly accept and facilitate Norman’s help in their quest to end the curse, as well as to belatedly disavow the antagonistic social politics that engendered it.

In this indelible moment, Fell and Butler pivot from one clear horror-canon reference point to another, leaving behind the social breakdown assumptions of the venerable zombie genre ur-text The Night of the Living Dead for the prototypical misunderstood outcast narrative of classic film horror: James Whale’s Frankenstein (directly quoted here, as a pitchfork-wielding mob set their town hall alight in order to fell the undead Pilgrims trapped inside, as was done to Boris Karloff’s doomed monster). Whale himself was a homosexual who may have seen his career cut short due to straight society’s prejudices, and it’s hardly a stretch to read these elements into the themes of his most famous film work and, through its homages, into ParaNorman as well.

While it may do much of its plot, character, and thematic work along conventional lines, ParaNorman surmounts cliché by virtue of the richness and depth of its metaphorical contexts. There’s much more to be dug up here than the old bones of a simple pariah narrative; it’s a reanimated body constituted of the plights of social outcasts, past, present, and future. It’s a film that not only speaks for those who are different.  It deeply understands their experience of pain, and Norman, the outcast hero, triumphs in the end by coming to a similar understanding.

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Categories: Film, Reviews
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  1. June 28, 2013 at 11:40 am
  2. February 19, 2014 at 5:38 pm
  3. July 6, 2014 at 8:57 am

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