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Movie Review: ParaNorman

By Bob Garver 

“ParaNorman” is one of those animated kids’ movies that’s filled with dark, deathly subject matter. At various points we see ghosts, corpses, zombies, and all manner of gruesome stuff in between. Yet there’s no mistaking that this qualifies as family entertainment. You’d think Tim Burton would have something to do with it, but he clearly had his hands full with his own creepy kids’ movie, “Frankenweenie”, due out later this year. “ParaNorman” does the genre proud; it’s hardly scary and very funny. Kids and adults will both find something to like, and often they’ll find themselves liking the same things.

Norman (Kodi Smit-McPhee) is a child who can talk to ghosts. In and of itself, this is a gift. He can exchange pleasantries with otherwise lonely spirits and pal around with his late grandma (Elaine Stritch). The problem is that nobody else can see or hear the ghosts when Norman talks to them, so he looks like a death-obsessed weirdo who talks to thin air. This makes him a social outcast and a target for bullies like Alvin (Christopher Mintz-Plasse), though he does make a friend in the dim-but-loyal Neil (Tucker Albrizzi). The worst part is that his own family seems ashamed of him. It’s not surprising that he gets ridiculed by his teenage sister Courtney (Anna Kendrick), but even his relationship with his parents (Jeff Garlin and Leslie Mann) is strained.

The plot kicks into gear when Norman gets a visit from his crazy uncle (John Goodman), who needs Norman to perform a ritual. The uncle has the same abilities as Norman, and a lifetime of ostracism has turned him kooky for real. Norman may be in store for a similar fate if his strange behavior remains unchecked. Determined to try and conform, Norman initially dismisses his uncle’s instructions, which leads to a zombie invasion. Norman has to work with Courtney, Alvin, Neil, and Neil’s lunkhead brother Mitch (Casey Affleck) to prevent the release of a greater evil.

Norman may have some misery in his life, but the movie is mostly pretty upbeat. There’s a lot of fun to be had at the expense of the characters’ stupidity and craziness. Sometimes it makes them affable (like with Neil and Mitch), sometimes it humbles them when they’re arrogant (like with Alvin and Courtney), and sometimes it just makes for some over-the-top silliness (like with Norman’s uncle and a ham of a drama teacher played by Alex Borstein). I also found the macabre humor to be consistently delightful, though it can get gross at times. Let’s just say that if you don’t think it’s funny when zombies lose their limbs, maybe this isn’t the right film for you. One complaint: with so many animated zombies running around, how can the film fail to pay homage to the video for Michael Jackson’s “Thriller”?

The film loses steam toward the end when it forgets to be funny and harps on an anti-bullying message. Social commentary is actually quite common in zombie movies (often the zombies are symbols of complacency), but the way it’s done here is awkward and doesn’t fit with the tone of the film. I got the distinct impression that the filmmakers were told late in the game that they needed to somehow “work in” some ruminations on the hot-button issue.

The preachy ending caused me to leave “ParaNorman” with a bad taste in my mouth, but up to that point the film was a lot of fun. Whole families were definitely getting a kick out of it, and in fact I was rather surprised by the crowd’s level of enthusiasm. There’s no shortage of creepy kids’ movies coming out this year, but you’d do well to catch “ParaNorman” and enjoy it as a family. 

Three Stars out of Five.

“ParaNorman” is rated PG for scary action and images, thematic elements, some rude humor and language. Its running time is 93 minutes.

Contact Bob Garver at rrg251@nyu.edu.