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Tuesday, October 21, 2014

HubrisWeen 2, Day 16: ParaNorman (2012)

Written by Chris Butler
Directed by Chris Butler and Sam Fell

Featuring the voices of:
Kodi Smit-McPhee:  Norman Babcock
Tucker Albrizi:  Neil
Christopher Mintz-Plasse:  Alvin
John Goodman:  Mr. Prenderghast
Jodelle Ferland:  Aggie

Stop-motion. Man. It's a nearly inconceivable amount of effort to take a little model, infuse it with personality, and take twenty-four shots of it per second of movie time. Ray Harryhausen was the undisputed master of the technique (proof, if it is needed, can be found here), and he spent months working on the creatures and effects that were then matted into the live-action portions of the film. How much more effort must it take, then, when every single character in the film has to be hand-crafted and posed? Not just the characters, but every prop and location as well. Then, just because the job isn't insanely difficult enough, all of the characters need to speak--and to have their words synch up to a pre-recorded soundtrack.

It took Laika Studios two and a half years to make this film, and it's essentially a stop motion comedy version of Evil Dead 2. You know, for kids! It's also a movie I desperately wish I could have seen when I was a ten-year-old weirdo watching monster flicks on Saturday afternoon (with all the social standing that being a skinny nerd who has an opinion on which Doctor is the best one* would give you). But even more than that, it's a movie that actually has something to say about human nature and how people should act towards each other--and how they do, and what a gulf there is between those two things. And it's the first time I can remember seeing a movie where the hero is someone like me.

The movie immediately shows its heart is in the right place by starting with the grindhouse zombie movie that Norman Babcock is watching on television (oh, if only Svengoolie had the rights to Italian gut-munchers! I could have been warped far more as a child than I actually was...); I can tell the directors love a lot of the same things I do, and for a lot of the same reasons. They also undercut the horror immediately by making the zombie so slow that the actress in the film has to keep screaming for an absurdly long time in order for it to catch up to her. Like just about everyone's parents, Norman's mom and dad aren't too thrilled that he's watching horror movies all the time but they like it even less when he asks his father to turn up the thermostat because his grandmother, watching the movie with him, is complaining about cold feet.

Well, there are two problems with Norman telling his parents about this. One is that his grandmother is dead, and has been for a while. The second is that he's not lying--he's able to see and communicate with ghosts. When he tries to convince his family that he really is getting information from beyond the grave, his parents ground him for spying on his family (which does honestly make sense). Among the salvos lobbed in his parents' ensuing argument that Norman overhears, his father makes a reference to Norman's mother's weird brother--and we get a jump cut to a muttering, coughing fat old man dressed like a bum and talking to himself about how there isn't much time left. He's got a stalker wall covered with pictures of Norman, which is not a good sign.

The next morning, Norman goes to school and says hello to all the various ghosts that have stacked up in Blithe Hollow over the years; all of them are friendly to the kid and there's some cartoonishly gruesome sight gags (a Mafia goon in cement shoes, an aviatrix impaled on a tree branch) that remind the viewer that Norman's seeing dead people, not just inconvenienced ones. There's a kitschy "Welcome to Blithe Hollow!" sign showing happy cartoon people hanging a cartoon witch and plenty of campy tourist-bait shops featuring a general theme of witchiness. There's a 300th anniversary festival banner hanging in the town square and FREAK written on Norman's locker when he gets to school. Ahh, memories. (Norman has a bottle of Windex in his locker to take care of the graffiti, which means he's very, very used to dealing with it). A bigger kid named Alvin appears to be his chief bully but everyone around him is perfectly content to stare and whisper when he's near them.

After school, there's a pageant rehearsal run by a bellowing tyrant of a teacher who tells the students and who seems to genuinely dislike the kids she's overseeing. Norman is the narrator of the pageant and when he goes over his lines it's also a way for the audience to get clued in to the story. 300 years ago, the Puritans who founded Blithe Hollow held a trial and hanged a witch. The witch cursed her accusers and said they'd rise from the grave as punishment for killing her. While coaching the students (one of whom wonders why she has to have a big warty green nose and pointy hat as the accused witch) the drama teacher goes super over the top. The teacher also says that selling an image for the town is more important than actually showing what really happened.

During the rehearsal, Norman has some kind of precognitive flash-forward and sees the gym burning down as well as a pack of ghostly Puritans. During his ensuing freakout a fat kid in a hard-to-move-in tree costume knocks some students down (leading to general hilarity from everyone else) and more yelling from the drama teacher. Neal, the fat kid, tries to make friends with Norman and reveals a fatalistic acceptance of bullies everywhere. He even tells Norman "if you were bigger and stupider, you'd probably be a bully too". Then the pair is accosted by Norman's weird uncle mr. Prenderghast, who says that the witch's curse is real and Norman is the one who has to stop it. Unfortunately he has a series of coughing fits while trying to explain exactly what Norman has to do, so no actual information is conveyed.

Neal asks Norman if he really can see ghosts, and wants to find his dog (which was run over by an animal rescue van). Neal thinks that being Kid Necroscope would be awesome, and introduces Norman to his musclehead brother Mitch (who offers a "tip" to Norman that he shouldn't act weird). They play for a while with Neal's dead dog, who is happy for the company. They start to forge a quick friendship, possibly the first for both of them. Meanwhile, across town, Mr. Prenderghast has a non-fatal heart attack, followed immediately by a fatal one. He dies holding a book--that's gonna be important later.

At the pageant, the kids are working their way through Donovan's "Season of the Witch", each in their own key. The witch curses everyone and Norman has another hallucination / vision. This time he sees fire damage on the stage before finding himself in a dark ominous forest, pursued by the Puritans he saw the last time reality dissolved around him. He gets picked up by an animated tree that grows a face and says "THE DEAD ARE COMING" with the Sam Raimi vocal distorter (the first, but nowhere near the last, tip of the hat from the filmmakers to the second Evil Dead movie). Norman caps his evening by flipping out on stage, running off of it and frightening the audience. His dad grounds him for being weird in public; later, his mother explains that his father is afraid for Norman, not of him; he knows how people treat anyone who's different. And of course Alvin and the backup jerks at school take time out of their day to make Norman feel more like a pariah.

There's a telekinetic disturbance in the bathroom later (a sentence that gives me great joy to write). Norman's in a stall when the ghost of Mr. Prenderghast shows up and tells him that he's got a task ahead of him--he has to retrieve the book from Prenderghast's house (and his body, for that matter) and read from it at the witch's gravesite before the sun goes down or the dead will rise. Alvin, one stall over, is terrified by the ectoplasmic blast created when Prenderghast's spirit departs for the higher realm. It turns out that when ghosts wrap up their earthly business they get to leave.

At home, Norman is still grounded but Neal comes by to visit. Norman says he has to stop the curse; Neal leaves and Norman sneaks out to try and get the book from Prenderghast's house even though he's terrified. His grandmother--who turns out to have stayed on the Earthly realm to watch over Norman--tells him that fear is natural, but that people can get past it if not over it. When he gets to Prenderghast's house he literally stumbles over the man's body and there's a slapstick scene where he can't pry the book from the man's cold dead hands (this culminates with a recreation of the polar bear falling on Tinker from the end of Road House; I smiled when I spotted the expected run of references to George Romero, Sam Raimi, Lucio Fulci and even Manos:  Hands of Fate in background sight gags but seeing a visual quote from Patrick Swayze's stupidest and most entertaining movie made my jaw drop).

Norman goes through a forest (with a special appearance from that stock audio owl hoot that is in more movies than the Wilhelm scream) and finds a circle of seven gravestones for the seven Puritans that accused the witch 300 years ago. He starts reading from the rather grimoire-looking volume and finds that it's just a kids' storybook. Alvin shows up just in time to snatch the book out of Norman's hands and the sun sets. A gigantic evil laughing cloud face forms in the sky and zombies rise up from the seven graves. Also, it is immensely rewarding to see Alvin leap behind Norman and hide when the shit jumps off. The lead zombie--the judge that pronounced a death sentence on the witch three centuries ago--points to Norman and intones "You must stop!" before the two kids run away. Alvin bolts first, of course.

Norman's sister Courtney is out looking for him, and goes to Neal's house as her first and only lead. Mitch answers the door wearing only a towel and she's instantly in lust with Neal's older brother. Mitch, Neal and Courtney go out in search of Norman and find him (Mitch almost hits Alvin and Norman with his van, and does smash into one of the zombies). Norman figures out that he wouldn't have been able to break the curse because he was reading the story at the wrong location--the seven accusers' graves were not where the witch's body was buried after she was hanged. Norman doesn't know where that is and Mr. Prenderghast never told him. A quick phone call to his smartest classmate gives Norman a clue--the town hall might have records on where the gravesite is.

The drive to the town hall results in a colossal van wreck; everyone's okay but Mitch nearly goes into shock when his ride falls apart like the Bluesmobile. The zombies reach the town and are horrified by how degenerate and occult-obsessed Blithe Hollow has become in 2012 (liquor for sale! Women in pants! A sexy witch on a casino billboard! Cats and dogs living together!) and the townsfolk, used to hearing about the curse for generations, pull guns and improvised bashing weapons out to take out the zombies.

At the hall of records, Alvin proves to be a valuable member of the team by picking the lock on the front door (by throwing a "Crime Prevention Seminar" sign through the window and reaching in to the deadbolt). Norman and crew barricade themselves in the hall of records and start the Herculean task of finding one specific piece of paper in a gigantic warehouse space full of unfiled record boxes. The zombies lurch off to the town hall, pursued by the town vigilantes after the drama teacher notices where they went. Norman and his Scooby gang are inside the hall of records pursued by the zombies while his neighbors hammer on the outside and try to break in (which means that the normal people are the besieging mob in this zombie film--a great reversal of the way things usually go).

It's actually a little worse than things usually get in a zombie siege because the townies outside start a plan to burn the building down. Norman runs up to the roof and then to the top of a tower, trying to read the story to the scary witch cloud face. It isn't listening, and zaps Norman with a lightning bolt. Norman has another flashback, this time to a courtroom three centuries ago where Agatha Prenderghast is sentenced to death for witchcraft. She's a ten year old girl who has the same ability that Norman (and presumably Mr. Prenderghast) have, and she never hurt anyone with it. But six people from town and a judge decide that they're going to execute a terrified child to make themselves feel better. When Norman wakes up he's surrounded by the living dead and furious. When he gives the zombies a piece of his mind, they actually agree with him (three hundred years in limbo apparently giving them time to think over how badly they mistreated Aggie). It also turns out that when the judge was saying "You must stop," to Norman earlier he was actually charging the boy with the responsibility of ending the curse. I did not expect that.

Norman does a little thinking of his own and deduces that the story only puts Agatha's vengeful spirit to sleep for another year, but doesn't affect the curse. The judge confesses to Norman that he was scared of Agatha and begs Norman to break the curse--only he can talk to the dead, so only he can go to Aggie's grave and try to put things right instead of kicking the can down the road for one more year.

He's got to start soon, because the town hall is burning down; Norman and his friends and relatives, as well as the seven zombies, flee outside and a cop pulls a gun on the judge. But Norman stands in the way of the bullet and tries to use reason and empathy as a way to make sure everyone gets out of this all right and without doing anything they'd later regret. He fails, because it's a mob made up of people who already view him as a dangerous freak. But his sister, Alvin, Neal and Mitch stand with him--possibly the first time anyone's been on his side in Norman's life. After some soul-searching from the mob (who are reacting stupidly out of fear, just like the Puritans did and caused the curse in the first place) Norman's dad drives (very very slowly) to the epicenter of the witchstorm. Norman realizes he's the one who has to go into the dark scary woods to try and fix things, and gets separated from his family by tree roots spiking up through the ground in the film's most obvious nod to Sam Raimi.

Things don't go really well at first. Norman tells the "witch" that he's just like her, and the spirit replies "You're not dead, and you're a boy!"; she has a point there, and not the one on her hat. She doesn't want to go back to sleep for another year and she's too angry and scared to listen to reason--so Norman tries telling her the story of her own life, even as Aggie tries to kill him. It's only when he points out that she's acting just like her accusers that the girl breaks down and cries. The forest becomes less evil and Norman gets one brief vision of himself and Agatha walking in the forest in daylight, talking like two kids instead of a vengeful spirit and reluctant psychic. It turns out in the end that Aggie really just wants her mother to make things all right, and Norman tells her that she does get to write the end of her story. He sits down by a tree and Aggie puts her head on his shoulder, relaxing and going to sleep, then fades away. As do the Puritan zombies, first fading to ghosts and then vanishing completely. The town's seen better decades, though.

Courtney sidles up to Mitch and asks if he wants to catch a non-scary movie some time and Mitch says it sounds like a lot of fun--his boyfriend loves chick flicks. And so it seems that the "tip" to Norman earlier about not acting weird for his own protection is something the musclehead knew more about than anyone would have guessed. A+ to the filmmakers for putting in another statement in favor of tolerance and inclusion for everyone.

And speaking of inclusion for everyone, the last scene is Norman parked in front of the television watching another zombie flick, but this time with his parents, sister and grandmother watching along with him (and his father makes a point to ask if his own mother is there as well, saying hello to her even though he can't see her--after all the things he's seen in Blithe Hollow, a single ghost on the couch is something he's willing to take on faith).

This is a completely charming movie, if somewhat heavier than its PG rating would lead one to expect. Sure, nobody dies but there's plenty of Evil Forest action, zombies, scary ghost clouds, a cackling witch face, lightning blasts aimed at the hero and yelling teachers. Any one of those things could freak out a child, I'm sure, and coming in one huge mob probably doesn't help anything either. But underneath it all the movie's got heart to spare, and it's charmingly off-kilter (all the handmade props look childish and semi-finished, which helps the world of the film immensely). And the filmmakers have written a love letter to the horror movies they undoubtedly grew up on while simultaneously putting a message of tolerance and acceptance deep in the marrow of the narrative. When Norman tells the zombies that they should be ashamed of themselves for treating Agatha the way they did, he's completely right and the movie's absolutely on his side. As well it should be.

And it's about goddamned time someone made a movie about a weird kid who gets to stay weird through the whole film. The soul of the film can be found in the shot where Norman tries to comb his hair so it lies flat and it just spikes itself up in seconds. He sees it in the mirror and sighs, because there's no way he can change who he is. The film says that nobody should ever have to do that; even better, it says that the things that make people weird are the things that make them valuable and needed. That makes ParaNorman worth five dozen "you'd be so pretty if you just took off your glasses and got a different haircut" movies any day of the week.

*Jon Pertwee is my homeboy.

This review is part of the HubrisWeen 2014 marathon. The other reviews for today’s entry are:

The Terrible Claw Reviews:  Please Don't Eat My Mother!


  1. Well, nobody dies besides Uncle Prenderghast (and I like that they named him "ghast"). But it was a FUNNY heart attack so that's okay.

    Really good review. I didn't realize there were so many tributes and homages buried in there.

  2. I had to wait till I was pushing 40 to see a movie where I could have been the hero. I probably needed it more now than I did when I was ten.

  3. To have a supposed kids film hinge on the plot point that early settlers murdered a little girl is almost inconceivable. The producers of this film have serious sized balls.

  4. It's hopefully going to make some young and impressionable viewers think about some things. If you see a movie when you're ten that points out authority figures can be bullies and unquestionably wrong in their actions, that plants a seed that hopefully will bear fruit for the rest of your life.

    It's also great that Norman is just as wrong as everyone else in the movie--he thinks the zombies are going to eat brains because that's what he's heard they do. Just like everyone in the past "knew" that Agatha was a threat for being a "witch", because that's what they'd heard. The difference is that Norman changes his mind and tries to help out instead of just letting things play out the easy way.