Coraline was good, but Laika’s new stop-motion animation marvel ParaNorman takes it to another level. Winking back to such giants as Alfred Hitchcock and George Romero, their first zombie animation knows how to add warmth to the proceedings and make its moral lessons stronger by helping the viewers arrive at their own conclusions rather than pushing clichéd values down their throats.
Norman Babcock (Kodi Smit-McPhee), the cutest antihero ever, speaks to dead people and pets (to great comic effect, at times). His caring Grandma (wonderful Elaine Stritch), who’s been dead for a while, is his only true friend – she knows very well she has to keep an undead eye on him since he is treated as a ‘freak’ by everybody else around him.
His parents (Jeff Garlin and Leslie Mann) constantly fight over his embarrassing paranormal skills while the town is about to get infested with zombies because of an ancient curse. Norman has to stop the witch who promised to wake the walkers but she turns out to be a little girl who was brutally murdered for being a kid different from the crowd – some 300 years before. Norman has to learn to break his way through her rage and save the townspeople, who aren’t much help at all.
Childhood the best of times?
ParaNorman paints the world of childhood as a dark kingdom of horror and ugliness. Every living creature (except the dead ones) is the vision of spastic, useless cruelty. His sister is a mindless phony. The kids at school are stupid bullies who misspell hateful nicknames. The neighbours look like they’d burn him at the pole – gladly. His parents are of no help: at one point Norman is talking to a belly and a bottom (his mother and father, as seen to us from his perspective).
His dad is the biggest bully of all. The abuse he inflicts is the kind of abuse that may leave scars for life. At least those are complete strangers in his school and in the street – they don’t have to love Norman; seeing his own father reject the very essence of him (his supernatural gift) is heart-breaking. No one coming out of ParaNorman will say sweetly that childhood as one’s ‘best years’ – and I would like to especially thank writer/director Chris Butler and director Sam Fell for shooting that idiotic cliché right through its dead head.
ParaNorman gets subversive quickly. We are not afraid of the zombies eating the children, we are afraid of the parents burning the children alive. Surviving in the midst of ugly (in and out) adults like the monstrous Teacher (with her green mask, she is almost indistinguishable from zombies) and the angry, blood-thirsty mob is no easy feat. Norman is the last boy standing – and it’s not the best way to learn about the world when you are a kid.
In the Middle Ages ‘weird’ people were burnt at the cross; today their lockers are sprayed with ‘FREAK’. It’s definitely progress – in terms of form; in terms of content not much has changed. With art projects like ParaNorman there is some hope though, and it’s much needed – everywhere around the world.
On the fun side, ParaNorman is a crazy fiesta of vibrant colours and amazing imagery. Norman looks like a child top model with his huge asymmetric eyes, crooked nostrils and Will Smith ears, which light up like overweight fireflies when the sun shines through them. His room is a haven of zombie paraphernalia – from wallpaper and bedcover to nightlight and slippers, all in the most eye-popping, juicy hues.
The whole idea of the zombie apocalypse hasn’t been so reinvented and turned upside down since Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later as it is in ParaNorman. The zombies (slow again) possess intelligence (and sometimes make more sense than humans), communicate with each other and are basically ‘good’ despite smelling terribly and groaning all the time. The focus here is on psychological horror and the intertextual fright potential of the zombie metaphor (we know they might be a threat, so we are scared – just in case).
Verdict: A movie about a bullying epidemic that is like a zombie one (once bitten the virus begins to spread, where former victims become aggressors) couldn’t be timelier. It’s beautiful. It’s very funny. It startles and scares. And it teaches us not to fear. What’s not to love?