From Laika Entertainment, which brought us the far superior Coraline, this animated feature from Chris Butler and Sam Fell has its heart in the right place but is crucially lacking in narrative drive and oblivious to any notion of subtlety.
There’s nothing wrong with being derivative if it sparks something vital in and of itself, but from the over-referential title of Norman’s town down (Blithe Hollow), this is lacking in wit and inspiration. Norman can see dead people (of course), and is consequently chastised for this idiosyncrasy; he is maligned by his uncomprehending parents and bullied at school by classmates who regard him as a freak. But his abilities enable him to learn of the fulfillment of an impending curse afflicting the town, cast by young witch Agatha on being condemned to death 300 years before. Of course, no one will listen to his warnings.
Across the pond, the film appears to have attracted more press for featuring an openly gay character (in a children’s film! mentioned in one scene at the end!) than anything else. Reviews have generally been positive, which may go some way to explaining my slight disappointment. The message about tolerance is commendable, less so is the need to point this message out to the audience repeatedly; since it informs every plot twist (and there aren’t very many), the story quickly becomes predictable.
Butler’s script ambles along for the first 45 minutes, so what does it then do? Undercuts any dramatic potential by telling us the ostensible villains aren’t actually bad after all. The “empathy for all” approach is certainly one that kids should be informed by, but in this case it serves the narrative function of divesting those who had Agatha hanged of responsibility for their actions. I have to admit, I found my attention waning as the last 20 minutes chundered by.
The stop-motion animation is technically very good, although many of the stylistic tics are over-familiar by this point. Horror genre in-jokes abound (Halloween, Friday the Thirteenth, Romero zombie movies) but ParaNorman isn’t particularly funny. It isn’t at all scary (I know, I know, it’s a kid’s film; it might at least be expected to reach Scooby Doo levels of tension, though). It’s also wholly lacking in the kind of anarchic energy that its title and advertising suggest. Still, if your kids are slow to pick up on the bleeding obvious and overtly lacking in appreciation for their fellow human beings, this could be the one for them.