October is Halloween movie month! Having been completely deprived of any kind of Halloween experience growing up, I now spend 31 days celebrating with film and TV. I like to shoot for a mix of old and new, horror and comedy, from the slightly spooky to the totally terrifying to the just plain weird. Each day of October I’ll reviewing one of these ventures in the realm of the creepy and supernatural. Some will be high quality cinema and some will require large amounts of alcohol to survive. Stock up on seasonal beer and Fireball-apple jello shots and join me! A warning, though – unless the review is of a very recent release, HERE BE SPOILERS.
Starring: Kodi Smit-McPhee, Anna Kendrick, Christopher Mintz-Plasse
Synopsis: Norman is an 11-year-old boy who lives in the Salem-analogue town of Blithe Hollow, which which has made an industry of its’ own witch hunting history. Norman is obsessed with zombies and the dead, largely because he can see and talk them. Unfortunately, this also makes him an outcast and no one understands, not even his own family. He meets one boy, Neil, who insists on being his friend even though Norman tries to reject his invitations. One day, after Norman has experienced even stranger than usual visions, a crazed old man comes up to him and tells Norman he’s his uncle, and that Norman will have to follow in his footsteps by performing a ritual every yeah on the anniversary of the famed Blithe Hollow witch’s death to keep her from rising and destroying the town. Shortly thereafter, Norman’s uncle dies. Norman reluctantly retrieves the book (which turns out to be fairy tales) and goes to the graveyard to read it as instructed, but is interrupted by the school bully before he can finish. The men and women who sentenced the witch so long ago rise from their graves as zombies, and the spirit of the witch begins to grow and exert power over the town, causing a huge lightning storm. Norman ends up teaming up with his sister, Neil, Neil’s older brother Mitch, and the bully to try and escape the zombies and find out what to do next. After a lot of chasing and the town getting up in arms over the threat, they find out that the zombies only wanted to talk to Norman to make sure he was going to perform the ritual correctly, because they were sorry for what they had done to the witch and didn’t want to make it any worse. It turns out the witch was just a little girl with strange powers named Agatha Penderghast, a distant relative of Norman’s. She was killed by the town council because they were afraid of her, and the ritual each year was to read her a bedtime story so she would stay asleep and not take vengeance on the town. Norman seeks out her grave and talks to her angry ghost, explaning that he understands what it’s like to have people afraid of you, but it’s not okay to hurt others just because you were hurt. He helps her to think about her mother who loved her, and she finds peace. She releases her hold on the town and sleeps, and the zombies return to their graves as well. In the end, Norman’s family accepts his abilities and they all hang out together – with his dead grandmother.
ParaNorman, from the makers of Coraline, is one hell of a sweet movie, particular given that it’s all about death and dead people, and faces some historical ugliness head-on (although the reality is that far more of the witches killed in the 1600s were old women than young girls). Aside from being an incredible feat of stop motion and CGI animation with fun character designs and a well-realized mythology, it’s is just bursting with humor and the exact kinds of messages both kids and adults need to hear. It doesn’t shy away from some of the more gruesome aspects of its plot, nor does it try to sanitize them. Although it does make death less scary – there’s even a scene where Norman has to pry the book out of the rigor mortised hands of his dead uncle which is both funny and disturbing.
The notion that a parent might be afraid for their child, and that this might cause them to take it out on the kid, is not one that is often addressed in kids movies so directly, but one I feel is hugely beneficial. I think it’s great for kids to see examples of loving parents who get it wrong, because they all do at some point, and to try to see things from their parents perspective. When you’re young, you don’t quite get that your parents are just people. Norman’s relationship with his parents is imperfect, and they may never totally understand him, but by the end they’ve moved to a place of mutual acceptance and love, which all any of us can hope for from our families, really.
The problems by fear and misunderstanding is the primary theme of the movie, repeated in small and large way with all the characters. The town council killed Agatha out of fear and a lack of understanding, and she is striking back out of fear and frustration over what was done to her. I appreciate that the movie never suggest that she is wrong to feel that way, and also doesn’t really ask her to forgive the men and women who killed her. It only points out that perpetuating the violence is wrong and won’t bring back what was taken from her. Agatha’s fate is sad and irreversible and the movie is honest with its audience that this is how things are some times. Some times we can’t make things better, we can only stop them from getting worse. Norman’s words and the regret of the town council will not restore Agatha, but her example can keep the people of the town from making the same mistakes in the future.
It’s a brave tack for a children’s movie to take, going far beyond the standard “you’re special and should be yourself” message that is more common, without going full Edward Scissorhands with it and dooming the oddball protagonist to a life of isolation. The movie is also brave in the fact that it’s the first animated children’s move in this country to have an out gay character. It’s only shown at the end, but it’s no ambiguous Oaken’s sauna moment. Norman’s sister has been crushing on Neil’s older brother, a dumb jock football player. When the crisis is over, she asks him out to a movie and he says “Sure, you’ll love my boyfriend – he’s totally into chick flicks!”. Although I wish we were at a point where canonically gay characters were a matter of course in children’s movies, they aren’t and this was handled as perfectly as possible. The character is not a stereotype, his sexuality is not relevant to his ability to help his friends, the character is not judged or punished for his sexuality. There is a joke, but it’s at the audience and Courtney’s expectations. It’s a great, normalizing moment that’s not too preachy but it’s also not so subtle you can pretend it’s not there.
Finally, let’s talk about Neil. Of all the sweet aspects to this movie, from the dead grandmother comforting her grandson to the bully defending Norman at the end to Norman being heartbreakingly honest with Agatha, Neil is perhaps the sweetest. His unflagging and unflinching pursuit of Norman’s friendship and his instant acceptance of Norman and his talents is so incredibly touching and real. We all wish we had a friend like Neil, and their relationship stands in nice contrast to the hypermasculine bromances that make up so many of the male relationships we’re shown.
This movie is light on main female characters, and Norman’s sister is a bit of shallow teen girl stereotype, but when push comes to shove she has a deeper inner strength and love for her brother. Much like with Mitch the gay jock, there is more to her than is initially apparent, and I like that her love of make-up and boys is neither discarded as she grows nor is it shown to preclude compassion or intelligence as is so often the case. It’s not bad or antifeminist for a movie to be primarily be for or about boys, as long as the messages it sends about masculinity aren’t damaging and the female characters are as finely drawn and realistic as the male ones, even if they aren’t the main characters. ParaNorman is great example of this and I think it sends a great message to children of all genders about what kind of person they should strive to be.
Quality: 9 sassy Neil’s out of 10 – Beautiful, touching, funny, and exciting
Enjoyability: 8 zombie Puritan’s out of 10 – Sillier than Coraline, and at times a little cluttered, but one I return to again and again.