What's so great about the movie ParaNorman? Is it the painstakingly meticulous stop motion action, or was it the awesome CGI technology it uses? Both contribute to its greatness, but the best thing about it is the storyline. The story is at once funny, tender, dark, and ultimately filled with triumph. It's a ghost comedy that doesn't just leave you breathless from laughing. It's also a story that makes you think when it's over.
The movie's concept seems common enough: outcast is befriended by fellow outcast, who in turn helps him save the town from destruction at the hands of an unstoppable force. Seems like the idea of a lukewarm, if not vacuous story, right? Nope. Once you're in your seat, and the movie's rolling, you're enchanted, enthralled with the characters' appearances, the meticulous details of the setting, and the dialogue.
Norman is a boy who can see dead people's spirits. He lives in a town called Blithe Hollow which celebrates its witchy past. In fact, the town is so enamoured of its fame as a place that put to death a witch, that it markets itself as a kitschy tourist attraction. But even with embracing this macabre past, it doesn't stop people from labeling Norman a freak.
His parents hilariously bicker over him when they hear him holding conversations with his dead grandmother. His sister is the typical spoiled, popular teenage girl obsessed with her looks who constantly mocks him. He is constantly bullied and ridiculed at school, and until he meets Neil, an obese boy who is also bullied, he has no friends.
Other than Neil, his only other friends appear to be the ghosts he sees while walking to school. They all say "hello" to him, and they exchange pleasantries. Norman is obviously conflicted about his gift: On the one hand, he has the unique ability to communicate with the dead. On the other hand, his gift has made him a social outcast, even in his own family, and the only person who seems to get him is his crazy great uncle, who can also see and communicate with the dead.
As the 300th anniversary of the burning of the town witch approaches, Norman begins to see visions of the past at the most inopportune moments, causing his teachers frustration and the local bully to take glee in making his life miserable. His great uncle, skillfully voiced by John Goodman, tries to talk to him about the upcoming festivities, and although Norman doesn't want to listen, he learns that he must read a story at the grave of the witch to keep her calm.
Of course, things don't exactly go as planned, and the seven townsfolk who accused Agatha Pendergast of witchery rise from the dead as -- you got it -- zombies. When this happens, Norman and the bully are both at the wrong place at the wrong time and end up running for their lives.
His sister, who is supposed to be watching Norman after he gets grounded, suddenly discovers he's gone and trots down to Neil's house, where she encounters his older brother, Mitch, a hunky athlete she immediately swoons over. Mitch (voiced by Casey Affleck) is so obtuse he doesn't really seem to notice that she's practically throwing herself at him. Anyway, the trio set off to find Norman, and along the way, they pick up an errant zombie who attaches himself to their car for the joyride of his undead life.
So, what happens next? The townsfolk discover the zombies and it's as if their brains turn off and they become shotgun wielding, torch carrying zombies themselves. An angry mob forms because no one cares why the seven zombies have risen from the dead. They don't care that Norman and his cohorts are in the city hall dealing with said zombies. They just want to burn the place down because, well, that's what people do, right?
In the end, Norman saves the day, despite an angry ghost who destroys part of the town in anger. He never gets a chance to read the story to Agatha, but he manages to comfort her enough so that she lets go of her rage. It's a touching moment, and so expertly done that you don't even realize there's a moral here.
This movie isn't appropriate for very young children, as there are adult issues, some violence and bright flashing scenes that might frighten the very young. The sculpted characters are blended with computer graphics so well that you hardly notice it, and the writing is done so expertly that you don't even realize you're watching a movie about compassion, love, and acceptance.
Children who are bullied will relate to Norman and Neil's characters, and even to Agatha's character, because she is the central theme here. A person was killed 300 years ago due to the allegations and no proof by a group of people out for blood. It really drives home the idea that a "witch hunt" can literally destroy lives and cause unspeakable pain and misery for those involved.
Even though ParaNorman was released two months before Halloween, it's a great movie to start off the witching season.