I broke up with zombies several months ago. It was me, not them. I was young when we met, so all the relentless lurching and gory flesh-eating was new and exciting. Now that I can't get away from them, it's a different story. I want to spend time with other monsters. Being a professional horror nerd has made the break-up an awkward one. Every time I go to the mailbox or open my e-mail or hit a convention, the walking dead are there. There hasn't been any real rancor, though. We spent some good years together. We'll always have the Monroeville Mall.
Then along comes ParaNorman, and my resolve is gone. In the blink of a stop-motion eye, the old feelings came rushing back. I remember why I fell in love with rotters all those years ago. Like the rare couples-therapy weekend that doesn't end in visions of bloody murder-suicide, ParaNorman has rekindled a love affair that had long since lurched its way into indifference.
As a lifelong horror fan, there could have been no other outcome. From the vintage title cards and scratchy film of its opening scene, ParaNorman wears its love for '70s Eurohorror and '80s slasher flicks on its tattered sleeve.
The movie begins with a hilarious and surprisingly gruesome homage to the lurid Italian genre films that inspired it. A buxom young woman is being pursued by a green-skinned zombie; when she opens her mouth to scream, a boom mic smacks her in the face. The joke probably isn't lost on Norman Babcock (voice of Kodi Smit-McPhee), a precocious middle-schooler who's watching the movie on his family's console TV set. He's having to explain the film to his grandmother, which would probably be annoying even if she weren't dead.
Norman sees dead people—a punchline that has been part of our pop-culture lexicon for 13 years now. But unlike The Sixth Sense's Cole Sear, Norman doesn't get much grief from the ghosts that fill the streets of his hometown, a Salem-esque New England hamlet called Blithe Hollow. Norman's problems are the living: the pea-brained bully named Alvin (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) who orchestrates Norman's torment at school, the surly older sister (Anna Kendrick) who constantly harasses him at home, and even his gruff, perpetually embarrassed father (Jeff Garlin). No one believes Norman is a medium. At best, they think he's a weird kid trying to get attention. At worst, they think he's nuts.
As if Norman needs any more stress in his life, his crazy and newly deceased uncle (John Goodman) shows up with a dire warning: The legendary 300-year-old curse supposedly placed on Blithe Hollow by an angry witch is real, and only Norman can stop it, by standing at the witch's grave and reading aloud from a musty old book. Naturally, complications arise and Norman and his band of outsiders are forced to fight off a horde of zombies (well, seven, but they behave in a very horde-like manner at first) to break the curse. To say more would be to ruin the film's many surprises.
Since ParaNorman comes from Laika, the Oregon-based animation studio that made Coraline, comparisons to that film are inevitable. In all honesty, ParaNorman is no Coraline. Laika's first feature, directed by Henry Selick and based on a book by Neil Gaiman, dove headlong through the rabbit hole and kept on going; ParaNorman stays much closer to the surface. What it lacks in psychological depth, though, it makes up for in visual artistry and unabashed charm. ParaNorman feels very much like the '80s kiddie adventure flicks that so many of us grew up on; it channels The Goonies and The Monster Squad in equal parts. The town of Blithe Hollow is a beautifully realized movie locale—gorgeous and quaint at first glance, but ragged and more than a little creepy when you take a closer look. It's the quintessential small American town, clinging to a past that is charming and perfect only in the flawed memories of its citizens.
It could be argued that ParaNorman gets a little wobbly at times. Without an architect like Gaiman building the framework, writer Chris Butler (who was a storyboard supervisor on Coraline) spends a few minutes twisting in the wind when he tries to cram in too much. ParaNorman is less complex than Coraline, but it's more complicated, if that makes any sense at all. But Butler, who co-directed with Sam Fell, packs in so much charm and sweetness that, even as the plot and tone swerve around a bit, ParaNorman never goes off the rails. The 3-D that goes largely unnoticed throughout the bulk of the film pays off in spades during the creepy, touching, and eye-poppingly gorgeous climax.
I'm not sure that ParaNorman will find the audience it deserves. It's occasionally dark, fiercely and unapologetically progressive, and crammed to the gills with references that only horror fans will get. For my money, though, it's one of the best—and certainly one of the most charming—films of the year.