I don’t really get it myself. I never bought into these creatures as inescapable forces of nature and I’m not quite sure how they could usher in a global apocalypse. With certain exceptions such as “28 Days Later” that toy with zombie lore and create something new, most zombies we see now are still the lumbering numbskulls from Romero’s movies that feast on human flesh and can be exterminated by inflicting major damage on their skulls. This is not a criticism of zombie apocalypse or zombie survival films in general, but these antagonists are just…sorta silly. Any creature that can be completely stopped in its path by a vinyl record to the noggin isn’t very intimidating in my book.
Thus, I was tickled by the opening sequence of “ParaNorman,” which presents a parody of one of those schlocky zombie flicks straight out of the grindhouse cinema bargain bin (the “Feature Presentation” title card is a nice nostalgic touch). The pursued female in the fictional exploitation film spends a lot more time shrieking in place than she does evading the threat.
But “ParaNorman” has nothing but kindness and respect toward horror audiences of all ages. Its protagonist Norman Babcock (Kodi Smit-McPhee) finds consolation in the glow of his television set, allowing the images of scary movies to enchant his young eyes. He gets it. His grandmother, not so much. “Why are they eating people?” she asks, puzzled by conventional zombie behavior, to which Norman replies, “That’s just what they do.” Earlier this year, a similar discussion about horror movies took place between my grandparents and I. Needless to say, both sides came out of the argument continuing to regard their opinion as the correct one.
Norman has a special ability: he sees dead people, just like Haley Joel Osment in “The Sixth Sense.” Though while Osment’s condition was like a curse that haunted him constantly, you’d be hard-pressed to call this power a ‘curse’ in Norman’s possession. He’s come to terms with it, and he’s seen interacting with all sorts of benign spirits on his daily walk to school.
If anything, his condition is more of a curse on his social life than it is on his psychological welfare. His odd behavior, scrawny appearance, and insistence toward having a supernatural ability makes him a likely candidate for harassment and ostracizing by his schoolmates, especially the local bully Alvin (Christopher Mintz-Plasse, pulling a departure from typecasting similar to Anthony Michael Hall in “Edward Scissorhands”). The only kindred spirit available within shouting distance for Norman is Neil (TuckerAlbrizzi), a fellow outcast who is constantly picked on for being fat.
The setting is a small town in New England called Blithe Hollow, which is clearly modeled after Salem, Massachusetts, and even inherits the town’s association with witch trials in the colonial era. 300 years after townspeople executed a young girl thought to be a witch, people claim that a curse is still buried deep within Blithe Hollow’s history. Norman’s newly-deceased uncle (John Goodman) informs him of a special ritual that must be performed in order to ensure that the full extent of the witch’s curse never sees the light of day. Norman is also imparted with the responsibility of finishing this practice before sunrise of the following day.
Most animated films these days focus their eyes towards frenetic action and rapid pacing, but “ParaNorman” is quite an anomaly. For one, the animation style is stop-motion as opposed to the computer-based methods in which Dreamworks and Pixar specialize. What’s more is that it is the first film of its kind to employ a 3D color printer to make character faces and expressions. The technology brings an exquisite new articulacy to the art form. The facial features on every individual character are nearly flawless, endowing them with an unprecedented amount of subtlety, humanity, and realism (despite still retaining a cartoonish aesthetic).
And the best part is that the filmmakers know about the concept of restraint. Most of “ParaNorman” consists of building mood and atmosphere and dealing rather seriously with issues of wrongful condemnation and the natural instinct of humans to criticize that which is different. The film’s biggest asset is that it knows when to scare and when to hold back. Well, I thought the second act, a big zombie chase across town, went on entirely too long. But I suppose it’s a trade-off for the third act when we learn that even zombies, the single most vacant antagonistic beings in all of horror, can have personalities themselves, as well as deep, deep regrets.