I’ve always been slightly bewildered by the zombie genre. Occasionally, it will be a social satire (the original Dawn of the Dead) or a spoof/homage (Shaun of the Dead), but I’m not sure what to do with games like Left 4 Dead or Zombieland. They’re certainly entertaining, but they seem based on the desire to kill humans without having to deal with the nasty morality of that decision. Zombies aren’t people too, but they were humans once, and it’s odd to take such glee in destroying them. It’s a license to kill with the knowledge that zombies are out to hurt you first. But what if the zombies weren’t malevolent? What happens when we shoot first, and don’t bother asking questions later? ParaNorman is a sharp, witty comedy with a ton of heart that puts a thoughtful twist on the zombie genre, and how a righteous cause can be anything but right.
Norman (Kodi Smit-McPhee) can see ghosts, and he’s pretty okay with it. What’s less tolerable is how everyone else, even his family, thinks he’s a freak who’s lying about seeing dead people because he wants attention. He manages to befriend another outsider, Neil (Tucker Albrizzi), but for the most part, no one else wants anything to do with him except his weird uncle Prenderghast (John Goodman). Norman’s town was built on witch-burning 300 years ago, and they’ve turned their horrific act into a cutesy part of their local economy (various shops and restaurants all have some kind of play on killing witches). Prenderghast warns Norman that the witch’s curse is about to come into effect unless he stops her since he’s the only one who can talk her down. Unfortunately, Norman’s a little too late, those who were responsible for killing the witch are awoken from their graves, and then they wreak havoc like zombies do.
Except there’s a core misunderstanding between the humans and the zombies, and it’s where writer Chris Butler and his co-director Sam Fell have put an incredibly clever spin on the genre. ParaNorman is built on a very old lesson—we fear what we don’t understand—but the movie is smart because it hits to the heart of our ignorance. We think we understand zombies. We think we understand witches. Those things are bad, so they must be stopped or they’ll kill us. Everyone in the town thinks they understand Norman—he just wants attention because it’s impossible to speak to ghosts. We fear what we don’t understand, but acting on what we think we understand could be even worse. Assumptions can be a dangerous shortcut.
The movie gets a little preachy with this message in the second act, but by then we’ve been warmed up by the lovable characters and delightfully dark sense of humor. It’s not just that the movie has jokes that will appeal to older audiences like a Friday the 13th ringtone on Norman’s cell phone [Correction: It’s the theme from Halloween]. The visuals are wonderfully imaginative, like when Norman gets attacked by a toilet paper poltergeist, or the various slings and arrows inflicted on the undead puritans. These memorable images show ParaNorman as yet another victory for stop-motion animation, and the power it has not only to build a world unlike any other, but to make us wonder “How did they do that?” in a way we simply don’t contemplate when it comes to 2D or 3D animation.
The team behind ParaNorman has a big love for goofy horror films, and it wears this love like a badge of honor as the opening titles come up in the style of a midnight TV movie. There are cell phones and other pieces of modern technology in ParaNorman, but its heart is firmly in the tradition of 50s-60s cheapy-horror flicks, and then rebelling against the subtext of those movies. Their text has persisted throughout the generations, and their prejudices are thousands of years old (that’s why the town’s puritan founders were killing witches in the first place), and the modern side of ParaNorman asks, “what have we really learned?”
I’ll probably never be a devotee of the zombie genre. I’ll take it piece-by-piece, but I’ll never be one of those people who have a shotgun in a glass case on the wall that reads: “In case of zombies, break glass.” ParaNorman has far more love for zombie movies (especially old ones), but it’s the kind of deep respect that allows them to question the genre. Unlike the empty-headed townspeople of the story, it doesn’t rest on the assumption that zombies exist to be fought and curses were made to be broken. Butler, Fell, and the incredibly talented crew at Laika have looked closer, and created a wonderfully animated feature that proves you can have a fun zombie movie without reaching for the shotgun.
Rating: 8.7 out of 10