Paranorman is a title I was excited about for a while, but then it dropped off my radar. Discovering it on Netflix this past weekend was a nice surprise, and I decided it was high time I watched it. I’d heard briefly that it wasn’t very well-received, though doing a little bit of research online tells me that impression was wrong, that it didn’t have stellar reviews but was overall considered decent, and was nominated for and even won some awards.
Which I’m glad of, because it was a damn good movie in a lot of ways.
The movie features Norman, an 11 year old boy who can see and talk with the dead. Naturally this causes a large amount of awkwardness with the living, who don’t typically don’t believe in Norman’s abilities. At best, they tend to think of him as a freak. At worst… Well, Norman’s relationship with his father makes me downright uncomfortable. His father is an abrasive man, someone who doesn’t hold with Norman’s talk of ghosts, and who makes no bones about it. When Norman snaps at him that he didn’t ask to be born the way he was, his father snaps back, “Well, neither did we.”
So right off the bat there’s some uncomfortable tension with his father’s intolerance and refusal to pull any punches, and for a kids’ movie, that was a bit surprising. Much of the time in movies intended for younger audiences, when there’s parental opposition to a main character, it’s because said parent is intentionally portrayed as a bad guy, maybe an evil to overcome, or else a pawn for that evil. Here we see something more akin to a kid and his father flat-out not getting along, something much more mundane, and for what it’s worth, while it hurts to see, it’s also a bit refreshing to see a portrayal of a family that has its problems without being the main problem. In introduces kids to the uncomfortable concept that families don’t always get along, that sometimes adults are blindly cruel, and that sometimes you’re going to face crap from people you love.
In short, it’s something to possibly gets kids and parents talking. And I’m fond of things that might influence parents to be parents and actually explain things to their kids, even if those things are awkward and unpleasant sometimes.
Anyway, Norman can see and communicate with the dead, and goes through hell for it. As if that weren’t bad enough, during a school play about the town’s history and folklore (involving a witch’s curse, because New England), he starts to see the world around him break and burn, revealing hints of something sinister underneath. The town eccentric, Mr. Prenderghast, approaches Norman and tells him that he has a job to do, that only he can hold back the witch’s curse and prevent the dead from rising.
Oh, did I mention that Prenderghast is dead for part of this revelation, and that Norman was talking to his ghost?
Also that Prenderghast is Norman’s uncle? And that Norman is now the only person in the family who can possibly hold back the curse? And that Prenderghast has nor moved on to the afterlife and can’t be contacted anymore for additional info?
No? Well, now you know just how the plot thickens.
Norman’s supposed to read from a certain book at the witch’s grave before sundown that night, to stave off the curse for another year and keep the town safe. The problem is that Norman goes to the wrong grave, reads from a book of what looks like fairy tales, and surprise, nothing happens except for the curse coming to fruition and raising the corpses of the 7 men who condemned the witch in the 1700s.
So now there are zombies on the loose. Lovely.
Norman and friends (or rather, Norman and his only friend Neil, along with Normal’s sister, Neil’s brother, and a local bully named Alvin) are led on a merry chase through the town, trying to evade the zombies and also find out exactly where the witch’s grave is so that Norman can read from the book at the proper place. It’s not really a surprise to hear that Norman does eventually find the grave and defeat the curse, but the how of it all is the really interesting part.
(Warning: spoilers abound.)
Norman can communicate with the dead, and typically this is just something that happens with ghosts, but as it turns out, since zombies are dead too, Norman can communicate with them. He discovered that the witch was, in fact, a little girl his own age, who could also communicate with the dead, who was accused of witchcraft and sentenced to death for it. In her terror, she let loose something horrible, cursing the 7 people who condemned her, and over time getting so wrapped up in her fear and hatred that she turned terrible and cruel herself. The now-zombies have had plenty of time to think about their actions, to regret what they did to a young child, and who want to end the curse and be able to fully rest.
It’s still up to Norman to still the curse, but he realises that holding it back every year doesn’t actually fix the underlying problem. The book of fairy tales is meant to act like a bedtime story, to put a little girl to sleep, but every year she’ll keep waking up angry and still want her vengeance. Norman has to get to the heart of the problem, trying to convince the witch, who is really a very scared and angry little girl named Agatha, that she doesn’t need to lash out anymore, that she’s not alone and isolated because of her power, and that bullying because you were bullied doesn’t actually make you better than anyone.
There’s a lot to unpack here, and I love it. First, there’s the presentation of the idea that sometimes what creates a bully is being bullied, that sometimes people stick up walls around themselves as lash out because they were hurt first, and being just as cruel and the cruel people is the only way you feel like you have any way to defend yourself. (But also sometimes bullies can just be jerks, like Alvin; sometimes you don’t get an explanation or a reason.) You see people doing terrible things that they thought were right and good at the time, but only upon reflection and consequence do they see the error of their ways. You see mob mentality, when the townspeople attack the zombies, and even after the zombies escape the townspeople go on fighting because they’re so caught up in fear and fighting that they don’t even see that what they were fighting is already gone. They’re ready to burn down a building with the zombies inside, trapping kids and teens in there, refusing to listen to their cries for help and mercy. It’s some dark stuff, especially for a kids’ movie, and really, I love it. Kids can often handle way more than we think they can, especially when it’s presented to them in an action-packed entertaining way, and if they have questions about people certain things happened, then hopefully they’ve got decent parents around to answer those questions.
Paranorman goes beyond the usual trite messages about being nice to bullies and just being brave in the face of adversity. It talks about how people can become so fearful they lose all rationality. It talks about how people are not always good. It says you can’t always trust adults to watch out for you and be on your side. It says that people can make mistakes, even huge mistakes, and still be forgiven if they learn from those mistakes. This stuff applies not only to the issue of Agatha and her curse, but also on a smaller scale, with Norman’s dad. At the end of the movie, we see him awkwardly start to take Norman a bit more seriously about his ghost-talking abilities, not fully comfortable with it yet, but at least willing to put aside his own discomfort and reach out to the son he previously derided. It was a small gesture that meant a lot.
Besides, dude drove zombies around in his car. Pretty hard to deny the whole “communicating with the dead” thing after that.
The movie also had a great reading-between-the-lines bit that I feel is worth mentioning. Norman’s uncle’s surname is Prenderghast. Agatha’s surname is Prenderghast. Agatha, Norman, and his uncle, all have the ability to see the dead. It’s never said outright, but there are strong hints that Norman is related to Agatha. Norman’s surname is different, and it’s never said which side of Norman’s family Mr. Prenderghast is on, but the implication is there, that the abilities are a hereditary thing. Of course, it could be complete coincidence, but really, I choose to believe there’s a connection. That it’s left there as a subtle thing for people to pick up on makes me like the movie that much more, since it doesn’t act like the audience needs its hand held to learn every single thing, which is a big problem in a lot of kids’ movies. Sometimes you can leave subtle things in and still have people pick up on them, and even if nobody does, nothing is really lost in the viewing. You don’t need to know that Agatha might be Norman’s ancestor and that their powers might run in the family. All you need to know is that sometimes these powers happen.
Also, can I take a minute to mention Mitch, Neil’s jock brother? Norman’s sister Courtney spends half the movie hitting on him, trying to get close to him, catch his interest, and most of the time he comes across as utterly oblivious. I mean, who can blame him when there are zombies around, really? Then at the end, Courtney asks him if he wants to see a movie together, and he’s all, “Sure, also btw, my boyfriend would love that movie.”
And that, friends, is how you normalize gay characters in media. Don’t make the characters stereotypical, don’t have some big scene where he tries to let Courtney down gently and says, “Sorry, I’m flattered, but *deep breath* I’m gay.” Don’t have people freak out about it. Just, “Yup, got a boyfriend, you’d probably like him.” Mitch is who he is, and you either like him or you don’t, and his sexuality is part of him but not his definition.
That reveal did make me wonder, however, how many angry letters got written by parents, telling the producers how they shouldn’t have included a gay character in a mainstream movie because it’s “inappropriate, and how am I going to explain that to my kids?”
Overall, I really enjoyed Paranorman. It’s not a perfect movie, there were some unanswered questions, and some of the scenes were a little cheese, but really, it was still pretty good. It was a dark but somewhat comedic movie, an animated horror flick for younger audiences, with a lot of strong themes that went beyond what I expected and made for a well developed and engaging story. Given that I heard almost nothing about it after its theatrical release, I’d venture to say that it’s even a bit underrated. There’s more to it than a kiddy Halloween movie, there’s plenty that adults could enjoy, and it’s one that I expect I’ll watch more than once, because it was fun and interesting and does a lot that I can respect. Definitely worth checking out if you haven’t yet.