The best non-animated kids films around at the moment are, without a doubt, the three Diary of a Wimpy Kid flicks. It bodes well then that, to begin with at least, ParaNorman plays out like Diary of a Freaky Kid, with the eponymous Norman and his new pal Neil enjoying a relationship that recalls the live-action franchise’s Greg and Rowley.
The difference is that Greg Heffley doesn’t see dead people. Norman does, and that makes him an outcast both at school and in the eyes of his family. Neil though (who is EXACTLY like Rowley) doesn’t seem to question his friend’s ability and their interactions coupled with the retro horror movie vibe makes for a glorious first act.
It all kicks off with Norman watching a beautifully crafted pastiche of a zombie movie. The opening sets the tone in terms of the visual style – a fabric-like aesthetic created using a 3D printer and stop-motion animation – and establishes the playful twist on classic horror flicks that the main film itself is built around. An early scene in which Norman walks to school and bumps into a number of ghosts who have experienced weird and wonderful deaths shows this off wonderfully; although when the plot gets into full swing it’s not quite as plain sailing.
Norman lives in a town famous for executing a witch 300 years ago, and he learns that it’s his job to perform a ritual which will prevent her returning and the dead rising. Things go wrong with the ritual thanks to the intervention of school bully Alvin, and before long Norman, Neil, Alvin, Neil’s older brother Mitch and Norman’s older sister Courtney are teaming up to try and save the day.
Some of the charm is lost when there’s a plot to follow, and weirdly things don’t seem quite as kitsch and barmy when Norman’s chasing down a group of zombies whilst a crazed witch is threatening to destroy his town. Thankfully, though, the characters are all so unique and beguiling that it almost doesn’t matter. Pixar may be the kings of CG-visuals but after this and Coraline Laika may be challenging Aardman on the stop-motion front. Courtney, Mitch and Alvin all look fantastic – it seems that the more bizarrely proportioned the character, the more fun they are to look at on screen.
The voice cast really step up to the plate too. Small parts for the likes of Bernard Hill, John Goodman and Jeff Garlin are delivered with relish, while amongst the main cast it’s Casey Affleck (Mitch) and Anna Kendrick (Courtney) who stand out. The only real disappointment is Kodi Smit-McPhee, whose sixth-sense afflicted protagonist is so agonizingly and unexplainably dull in comparison to those around him. When Norman finally faces off against his adversary come the film’s climax we’re greeted by a character whose raw emotion is in stark contrast to that of our dispassionate hero. This is a film that really didn’t need to go down the dull everyman route for its lead, they should have subverted the Norm.
In just about every other aspect the film does, and there’s a danger that the off-kilter kids film will have some parents fearing that this isn’t appropriate for young children. So let’s set the record straight – just because the subject matter isn’t sweet and fluffy doesn’t mean it’s too scary for young ones. The horror vibe is fun rather than creepy, and sure there’s a witch but you’ll find scarier villains in most Disney movies. In fact, most of Pixar’s recent output (and certainly Laika’s own Coraline) have more distressing moments than anything on offer here. There’s even an argument that this is the perfect film for kids to be introduced to the horror genre, while for anyone older it’s an affectionate examination of it. The bar has been set, and now Frankenweenie and Hotel Transylvania both have a lot to live up to.