I think there's a point in everyone's childhood where one feels displaced from their surroundings and possibly alienated from their friends and family. It's just a part of growing up and it helps us appreciate ourselves as individuals before we finally get thrown back into the fold of society. For some kids though, being singled out isn't really a choice, and it isn't individualism that they need, but acceptance from those closest to them. Norman is one such kid. All he wants is for someone to listen, for someone to try and understand his plight, be it his sympathetic mother, his narrow-minded father, or his self centered cheer-leading sister. It's something a lot of us go through growing up, and it makes Norman instantly likable and easy to relate to.
Of course, Norman can see and speak to the dead, so his problems probably dwarf most of ours.
For someone who sits in his living room watching schlock-y horror movies while talking to his deceased grandmother, Norman is actually a pretty down to earth kid. He has a gift that allows him simply to speak to people who don't see much in the way of conversation anymore. That may be because they're all dead, but to Norman that doesn't make them any less of a person and as he walks down his street to go to school he merrily greets the ghosts and phantasms no differently than any other happy-go-lucky kid would his own neighbors. Of course, to those happening by and who know his reputation, Norman appears to be a bit...off. It's talking to the living that seems to be the real problem for Norman, or more accurately, it's the living's inability to listen. He isn't ashamed of his gift, and openly proclaims to be able to speak to the departed, because as far as he's concerned, it's not that strange. It's something he's always done, so why should he have to hide it?
Of course, we know why he's expected to hide it. Because it's weird, it's different, and weird and different make people uncomfortable and afraid. That's just a rule of society, and poor Norman has to put up with it as he's ostracized by everyone in the town, including his own family. But when the chips are down and an ancient witch's curse begins to raise the dead from their graves, Norman is the only one capable of saving the town and everyone in it.
As far as plot goes, ParaNorman doesn't really blaze any new ground. A motley crew of children and teens most overcome their differences and come together to fight a malevolent force. You have all of your requisite adventure movie kids. There's the muscle bound jock Mitch (Casey Affleck), the valley girl cheerleader Courtney (Anna Kendrick), the dim lit bully who can't even spell his own name Alvin (Christopher Mintz-Plasse), and the fat and uncharacteristically jovial best friend Neil (Tucker Albrizzi). And then there's Norman (Kodi Smit-McPhee), who, despite his circumstances, is really just an every-kid trying to do the right thing. As characters they're all tried and true archetypes that don't really do anything unexpected, or I guess I should say that they do do everything that is expected of them. They're all well acted and full of personality, with the exception of Norman, who comes across as just a little too normal and boring for a kid who loves zombie movies and can see dead people. Perhaps in an attempt to make him as easy to relate to as possible the creators faltered and made someone a little to common. He's still likable, and easy to sympathize with, I just wish he was a bit more weird for supposedly being such a strange kid.
And just as the characters are a bit on the cliche side, so too are the story beats. Essentially the formula is as follows: joke, plot point, then another joke, some action, a joke, another plot point, etc. This isn't something I think is a problem, especially for a family friendly children's movie, but a few of the gags and jokes fell flat for me, and seemingly even for the children in the audience. Several moments had children laughing out loud, but there were just as many that were obviously meant to be funny that didn't receive any reaction at all. Humor is a fine line to toe, especially across generations, but some of the gags are just unwarranted, especially one at the end of the film involving Mitch and his sexual orientation. That isn't to say the movie isn't funny, because I certainly found myself chuckling throughout. There's one scene in particular that references Friday the 13th that really warmed my cockles, but just as many jokes fail as succeed.
While the humor may falter, the movie does shine in it's message. What could have been a simple kid's movie turned out to be willing to go to some dark places. Suffice to say, the story isn't as simple as good overcoming evil, and Norman's journey gives him insight into the persecution of another not unlike himself. With a surprisingly poignant resolution, the film attempts to show the audience the danger of fearing what we don't understand and to do our best to offer empathy to those that are different from ourselves, otherwise we may become the very thing we were afraid of in the first place.
It has to be said that as a stop motion animated film, ParaNorman looks absolutely amazing. The amount of detail Laika Studios was able to cram into each scene is awe inspiring, and I hope it galvanizes other studios into appreciating the tried and true forms of traditional animation and practical effects. Anyone who has witnessed the amount of toil that goes into stop motion animation will appreciate the work that must have gone into the film that much more. I'll admit I did not see the movie in 3D, as I'm not a huge fan of the of the technology, but I would assume from my digital screening of the film that it would probably translate very well into a 3D feature.
As a paranormal adventure, ParaNorman is fun and exciting in equal measure, with some surprisingly moving moments and a message that should truly be taken to heart. There were even a few instances that brought to mind movies like The Goonies, or a personal favorite from my own childhood, Monster Squad, and while I don't think it quite reaches the status of those two films, it is still a modern animated marvel and an adventure that can be shared with the whole family.