Imagine Tim Burton at his creative height (and without the terminal self-regard that corrupted his once welcome vision), and you have a pretty good idea of what ParaNorman is all about. It celebrates the gothic outsider in familiar fashion, though it does so with a wisdom and gentleness that Burton seems to have lost. It talks about stereotypes and the judgment of the mob, but in a way that includes all of us, not just a single put-upon soul. It can’t quite match The Nightmare Before Christmas for charm or elegant whimsy, but its slower-paced storyline offers pleasures that its predecessor never considered.
Credit directors Chris Butler and Sam Fell for taking things slow and allowing us to soak in their world, rather than shotgunning everything at us in an ADD blitzkrieg. Their hero, Norman (voiced by Kodi Smitt-McPhee), resembles a more well-adjusted version of Haley Joel Osmont’s character in The Sixth Sense. He watches movies with his grandmother even though she’s been dead for years, he waves hi to the Civil War casualties on his way to school, and he even plays fetch with the local roadkill. He lives in a rundown New England town that scrapes by on a meager tourist trade; 400 years ago, the local Puritans burned a witch at the stake and their ancestors have steadily milked the incident ever since.
That eventually turns Norman’s already difficult life upside down, since the witch left a curse behind and only someone with his special gifts can stop it. The curse comes attached to a mystery, involving the true events surrounding the witch’s burning and the town founders responsible. Said founders ultimately rise from the dead to menace Norman and his neighbors. But there’s more to their appearance than meets the eye… and less to their supposed victims than we might expect.
Those wrinkles provide ParaNorman with its biggest surprises, which I won’t reveal here. More importantly, they help accentuate the notions of human pettiness that lead the collective to brand those they don’t understand as freaks. Norman collects a passel of assistants to help him, but with one exception they all regard him as barely more tolerable than the supernatural threats surrounding them. Only his friend-by-association Neil (Tucker Albrizzi) accepts him for who he is, and it takes Norman some time to appreciate that.
His journey thus becomes something wholly unexpected, involving not the destruction of evil, but the need to understanding and tolerance to others. Butler and Fell sneak up on us with it, laying the threads down slowly, then bringing them together only when we think we know where it’s all going. The tactic works time and again, mostly because the filmmakers put so much effort into developing the characters properly. Like Nightmare, we embrace what we see because the souls within them carry real weight.
The same holds true with the atmosphere surrounding them: combining the fluid efficiency of CGI with the personal touch of stop-motion. It’s rundown and threadbare by design, a backwater town slowly devouring itself and thus right at home in the dark of October when ghosts and ghouls come to play. That’s to be expected from a film of this nature, but not the way it refuses to tie things up in a neat package by the end. This film bleeds along the edges, its reality expanding beyond the realm of the frame. Its messiness makes its message resonate all the stronger: something for the real world rather than the confines of cinema.
If ParaNorman has a weakness, it lies in the languid pace, which may prove intolerable to the very young. It’s also much scarier than other films of this ilk; while Nightmare and the wonderful Coraline spoke to the same dark fears, ParaNorman embraces them more readily. It thus works better for the adults in the audience than the children, though kids might benefit for the gentle lessons it imparts. In any case, it makes a fine addition to the canon of stop-motion features, bringing thoughtfulness and maturity to an already admirable art form. I can think of no better way to close out the summer, and no better movie to close it out with.