When we’re growing up, we believe that our parents and grandparents will guide us through life. As our family shares their interests with us, we often glom onto the moments we connect over. For some special families, those moments involve bad zombie movies. The young animation house LAIKA Studios began production on their first feature, Coraline, in 2005. When 2012 rolled around, their highly anticipated ParaNorman proved the studio was ready for bright lights. The stop-motion film from Sam Fell & Chris Butler proved the team at LAIKA was here to stay. It also remains one of the very best animated films of the decade.
In ParaNorman, a young boy (Kodi Smit-McPhee) struggles to find normalcy thanks to his ability to see the dead. His parents (Leslie Mann, Jeff Garlin) struggle to help him move through the grief of losing his grandmother (whose corporal form is voiced by Elaine Stritch). Norman’s sister (Anna Kendrick) actively finds him embarrassing. While running from a bully (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) at school, he meets Neil (Tucker Albrizzi), another young outsider who forces his way into becoming a reluctant Norman’s friend. However, when Norman’s crazed Uncle (John Goodman) cannot complete his yearly duty to stop the dead from rising, the town of Blithe Hollow soon finds itself haunted by zombies and ghouls.
The screenplay from Butler rarely gets its due. Not only does ParaNorman construct a taut storyline that opens the door for scares and adventure, but it’s filled to the brim with emotional intelligence. As we lose family and friends, we can rarely make it to the other side by ourselves. Even those of us who would consider ourselves introverts need the opportunity to connect to someone else. Healing means creating new connections, even for someone like Norman. The truth is that people who love us are not gone. They remain with us in ways we will never realize. We carry their legacies forward, and for Norman, these moments of happiness provided him respite from a cruel world. While he embraces these aspects of his life, he loses connection with those around him.
At the same time, the film argues that our connections can bring us back from the darkest of places. For all the hurt and pain, we thirst for this connection. At the end of the film, Norman stands in a field with a young girl. In this moment of connection, he offers empathy and compassion. He offers love and hope for someone desperately in need of his friendship. While we may be in pain, so much pain we want to lash out at those around us, we all deserve the opportunity to heal. It’s a powerful message to embrace a kind act in the face of danger.
At the same time, the film’s messages about mob mentality have continued to age particularly well. Many find themselves scared when confronted with the unknown. In this case, ParaNorman builds on Arthur Miller’s The Crucible and forces the mob to confront their own actions. Blithe Hollow, a town that traffics in death and misunderstanding, must confront its legacy of shame. We do not heal as we turn away from the truth, and instead, we are doomed to repeat the mistakes that haunt us. While we are not the ones who perpetrate the original sin, our unwillingness to acknowledge its existence spawns a slew of new sins that poison our culture. As movements throughout our country continue to ignore the dark sins of our past, they simply delay our day of reckoning.
Fell and Butler pack every homage to B-level horror movies from the seventies and eighties into the visual palette of the film. At times, they’ll use a single shot to call out their live to multiple franchises at the same time (see Neil, handing by a clothesline outside Norman’s window while wearing a hockey mask). The visual flourishes they craft adds a tactility that most animation cannot hope to achieve. A brilliant character, born of crackling electricity in human form, instantly elevates the effects of ParaNorman to groundbreaking stature. The production design brilliantly recalls horror classics, while also abiding by the visual aesthetics of Salem, Massachusettes.
Combining visual flair and emotional intelligence, ParaNorman showcases the power of sincerity in storytelling. LAIKA’s sophomore feature never sacrifices its characters in place of spectacle, and simultaneously trusts its audience to follow its wavelength. A glorious celebration of the genre and of the uniqueness of stop-motion, ParaNorman earns its place among the best films of the previous decade.