Some people are born with a gift. Maybe it’s the ability to figure out complex equations and solve the mysteries of the Universe. I didn’t get that one. Others are great at tearing apart and repairing car engines or other mechanical devices. I didn’t get that one either. For most of us, we are just kind of average. While we might wish we had some unique talent or heightened ability to do something out of the ordinary, most of us simply are middling, typical run-of-the-mill folks. This week’s movie is about a boy with a very special gift; but it turns him into a social outcast and the target of bullies. It's just another example of being careful what you wish for in the film “ParaNorman.”
Norman (voiced by Kodi Smit-McPhee) is a pretty normal kid in the small town of Blithe Hollow with the exception of his being able to see and speak with the dead. His grandmother (voiced by Elaine Stritch) is among the dearly departed Norman speaks with as she’s still in the house with Norman, his sister Courtney (voiced by Anna Kendrick), his mom Sandra (voiced by Leslie Mann) and his dad Perry (voiced by Jeff Garlin). Perry doesn’t believe Norman actually talks to the dead and that he’s claiming he does only to get attention. He berates Norman and orders him to stop acting that way. His mother, while not believing him, is more sympathetic while his sister considers Norman an embarrassment. Norman’s claims of speaking to the dead have spread to his schoolmates who bully him constantly. The worst bully is Alvin (voiced by Christopher Mintz-Plasse) who daily writes the word “Freak” on Norman’s locker. Norman’s only friend is Neil (voiced by Tucker Albrizzi), an overweight boy who doesn’t get treated much better by his classmates than does Norman. The 300th anniversary of the hanging of a suspected witch by the town’s founders is approaching. The day is one of pageants and celebration but one resident, Mr. Prenderghast (voiced by John Goodman) who is Norman’s uncle and considered the black sheep of the family, fears it will be a day the dead walk again thanks to the curse of the witch hanged all those years ago. Mr. Prenderghast is ill and tells Norman it’s up to him to keep the witch’s curse from coming true. Unfortunately, he dies before he can tell Norman exactly what to do; however, that’s not that big a problem since his ghost can visit Norman and fill in the details. Norman must read from a book, which the corpse of Mr. Prenderghast is still holding, at the grave of the witch before sundown to keep the dead from taking over the town. As Norman reads from the book he’s interrupted by Alvin and the two witness the seven town founders responsible for condemning the witch to death rise from their graves. Meanwhile, Courtney has gone to Neil’s house looking for Norman and meets Neil’s older brother Mitch (voiced by Casey Affleck). Together, they go looking for Norman and wind up in the middle of a supernatural showdown between the walking dead and the residents of Blithe Hollow.
For a kid’s movie, “ParaNorman” has a great deal of mature story and lessons. Several the movies’ funnier jokes may go right over many younger viewers’ heads; but parents don’t need to worry as your children will never be bored by the film. It has terrific characters, lots of action and a very emotional conclusion that viewers of any age will easily understand.
“ParaNorman” is something of a throw-back as it is done with traditional stop-motion animation. Some films that appear to be stop-motion are actually CG made to look like the old style method of moving models a fraction of an inch then exposing one frame of film then repeating the process until you have a complete movie. It’s a laborious way to make a film but, in this case, produces a spectacular creation with fully realized characters and enormous heart. I’m not sure this film, had it been CG animated, would have been able to pull off the same qualities. I’m not saying CG films can’t heartfelt and emotional. I wept like a child at parts of “Toy Story 3,” but this film really shows how a well-made stop-motion feature can take on a higher level of quality.
The voice acting in “ParaNorman” is very good. Kodi Smit-McPhee, who has been seen on camera in “The Road” with Viggo Mortensen and other films and TV shows, really portrays Norman as a child with the weight of the world on his shoulders. He sees and talks to ghosts who talk to him. They’re his friends while the living world believes he’s a freak. While he’s shunned by nearly everyone, including his father to some extent, Norman doesn’t lose his humanity and that’s evident in the performance of Smit-McPhee who, when recording his role, was only 15 years old. Anna Kendrick, who is somewhat older than the 16-year old Courtney, plays the bratty older sister with cruel glee. Through Kendrick performance, you can tell Courtney believes her life would be perfect if Norman had never been born. She’s also able to turn on the charm when she meets Neil’s brother Mitch who is a strong, well-built football player. Mitch is all muscle and little brain. He’s voiced by Casey Affleck who is brilliant at playing dumb. Mitch knows he’s not smart but does the best he can. While it isn’t said, it seems Neil and Mitch are on their own. Mitch has assumed the role of father and cares deeply for his little brother even if he doesn’t quite understand him. He also willingly goes on a search for Norman simply because he’s Neil’s friend and Mitch understands that his brother needs all the friends he can get. Affleck’s performance treats Mitch with respect while at the same time an understanding of his shortcomings.
The entire cast is great but I did get a little tired of hearing Norman’s father, voiced by Jeff Garlin, berate his son. Every time the character is on screen he’s belittling Norman and ordering him to act normal. Perhaps it was Garlin’s high-pitched wheeze that grated on my nerves. The madder Norman’s father gets, the higher the pitch got. At first I was afraid the character was going to yell himself into a heart attack or stroke, then I began to hope for it. This minor quibble won’t interfere with your enjoyment of “ParaNorman” as Norman’s dad isn’t on screen that much.
“ParaNorman” is rated PG for scary action and images, thematic elements, some rude humor and language. The people rising from their graves might frighten the youngest children. You should expect a few poop and fart jokes on occasion. The word “boobs” is used in reference to Neil. Near the end of the film, one male character refers to his “boyfriend” that could lead to a discussion about alternative lifestyles or you could choose to deflect it and say how a male friend of your child is a boyfriend. There are a few curse words but they are limited to “Hell” and “damn.”
“ParaNorman” is a very well-made stop-motion film that tells a tale of bullying, intolerance and finally, acceptance. It is far more than just a quirky kids’ movie and actually may lead to important discussions between children and parents about what it means to be different and how that isn’t a bad thing even if it seems everyone around you thinks it is. It doesn’t hurt that the film couches its message with a great deal of humor and a sweet, touching ending. Bring a tissue as you may roll a tear.
“ParaNorman” gets a very enthusiastic five guitars.
Two or possibly three new films open this week and which one I see and review is up to you. Vote for the next movie that gets the Stan treatment.
The Apparition—Plagued by frightening occurrences in their home, Kelly (Ashley Greene) and Ben (Sebastian Stan) learn that a university's parapsychology experiment produced an entity that is now haunting them. (I’m not completely sure this one is opening in Knoxville but it is listed as a wide release feature.)
Hit and Run—A comedy about a young couple (Kristen Bell and Dax Shepard) that risks it all when they leave their small town life and embark on a road trip that may lead them towards the opportunity of a lifetime.
Premium Rush—A bike messenger's (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) last delivery of the day turns into a life-or-death chase through Manhattan.
Stan’s Choice—Stan sees and reviews any film of his choice currently in theatres.
Release dates are subject to change and not all films may be shown in Knoxville, TN.