Directed by Chris Butler, Sam Fell
Written by Chris Butler
Half term in the halloween season, so it was ParaNorman with two kids. Kids’ films can be hard work, but this, like a classic English pantomime, was laden with plenty of detail and humour to keep the adults fully entertained.
We’re in small-town America, in Blithe Hollow (Blithe Spirit reference), a town where a witch was executed three hundred years ago. Norman (age 11) can see ghosts all around him, so is regarded as a freak by family and classmates alike. He is bullied at school, with the ringleader of the bullies being Alvin. Norman is called “Freak” so is thrown together with Neal who is called “Fatty.”
Norman’s family: Grandma (a ghost), Mom, Dad, Norman, Big sister Courtney
Norman has an older sister, Courtney (who has a Valley Girl accent, though surely witch-hunts in 1712 were New England). Courtney was voiced by Anna Kendrick. Neal has an older bodybuilder jock of a brother called Mitch. Mitch and Courtney are hilarious, as are all the adults: Norman’s parents, the drama teacher at school, the traffic cop. They’re all gross … well, vicious … caricatures. Some moments of caricature like Norman’s eye view caught between two accurately floppy parental bellies are tears of laughter level. Courtney fancies Mitch who is as thick as two short planks. The pay off at the end when Courtney suggests they go to the movies and he says something like, “Yeah, great Cath. And you can meet my boyfriend … he’s really into chick flicks” was well over the kids’ heads, but we laughed.
I’m not worried about plot spoilers here. It’s quite tricky for kids to follow in the first place, and the adults will be so busy laughing and paying attention to the rich background detail that they won’t mind.
Norman and his outcast uncle
So Norman can see the dead. Three hundred years earlier, the town had executed a witch, who then cursed the town and her seven accusers. His uncle, Prendergast (voiced by John Goodman), is an outcast because he can see the dead too. He desperately needs to pass on his task to Norman: every year he has to read from a book at the witch’s grave to prevent the curse taking place. If it does, the seven accusers will rise from their graves as zombies. Prendergast dies before he can pass on the knowledge but appears as a ghost to Norman and tells him he must prise the book from the dead body’s hand and “read it at the witch’s grave before sunset.” Problem. He doesn’t say why or how or crucially where the witch’s grave is. So we’re into the caper as Norman, Neal, Mitch, Courtney and Alvin the bully are thrown together and pursued by the zombies … Norman was too late.
L to R: Courtney, Norman, Neal & Mitch
It all sounds pretty horrible and scary. It begins with a TV programme (4:3 ratio) of a horror film that Norman is watching at home, and we though, ‘Uh, oh … is this too frightening?’ I was very mindful that at eight, it would all have scared me rigid and given me nightmares for months. So I was worried about our small charges, but unduly. In the last ten to fifteen years, we have imported the American version of Halloween wholesale into British life, which means that ghouls, zombies, skeletons and mummies are now just part of the Halloween visuals thing. I guess the point of Halloween was to make kids immune to these obvious terrors. It seems to have worked. There are some genuinely scary bits, when Norm is wrestling the book from his uncle’s corpse and the uncle’s tongue lolls out and dribbles across Norman’s face. That was disgusting … but the kids laughed.
We once did a version of Frankenstein as a pantomime, where the monster was harmless and nice, but only the kids in the audience knew that, and this is along the same lines. It turns out the zombies are harmless, contrite and scared of humans, especially when chased by the mob. The resolution is good. The witch turns out to be an eleven year old girl who was executed because she had the same powers as Norman. Her name was Agnes Prendergast, the same surname as his uncle, so it’s hereditary. So the villains are the townspeople, not the witch nor the zombies. There are plenty of supernatural jokes, such as when Norman’s mom says “Not believing in the afterlife is like not believing in astrology!’
The movie references are legion. The set design is superb … the battered rusty school restroom is so real you think you can smell it. The crowds echo the 1931 James Whale Frankenstein. The end credits are slasher movie font. It’s an original story, and excellent both in plot and dialogue. Even the old jokes are great (Uncle Prendergast: You have to swear! Norman: What? Say the F-Word? Uncle: No, promise!)
We loved it. It’s worth going to see for adults even without the excuse of kids to entertain over a wet half-term holiday. Definitely a future DVD purchase.