Norman is a kid ParaNorman's viewers can relate to. He's got a quiet sense of humor, evolved as a defense mechanism against his family and their various foibles, and an abiding love for the ghoulish side of art. He likes zombie movies and ghost stories — but not exactly in the way that many kids/teens/adults do. Norman, you see, can talk to the dead.
If 2012 is another summer of superheroes, then ParaNorman deserves to stand alongside the Avengers, Batman, and Spiderman, because this kid steps up to the plate and brings everything that's good and decent about humanity with him. That Norman talks to the dead unnerves the town. This is in itself kind of weird. The film's cosmology allows for — in fact, depends on — the presence of an afterlife, positing that those who remain on this plane of existence have unfinished business of some sort. You would think the presence of someone who could speak with the dead would provoke rapturous hosannas from those looking for everyday miracles. But nobody seems to care too much for Norman.
This film, the latest effort from Oregonian animation studio Laika (Coraline), has a lot on its mind. It starts slowly, laying out its characters and town in a way that might prove frustrating to those expecting non-stop thrills or something pitched at the frenetic pace of most recent family films. But ParaNorman builds narratively and emotionally as it goes along, and by its end, it has the inexorable momentum of a runaway train.
At the center is a two-fold story, both dealing with a witch's curse on the town of Blithe Hollow. We're introduced to this town as a place perpetually surrounded by the legacy of its actions centuries prior, when a witch was hanged and cursed the town with her last breath. It's an aspect of the town's history used for merchandising, statues in the town square, and for memorialization in the local school's theatrical presentations. It's also a bloody spot on the town's history, hushed-up and commemorated in the most banal way possible.
But as the truth of what happened in Blithe Hollow is revealed, ParaNorman offers the bracing spectacle of a ghoulishly cute film demanding moral responsibility from its viewers — and this sudden jolt of substance is thrilling and awesome. Unexpectedly, the film's focus is on reconciliation: for an effort so well-versed in the ghoulish, it is first and foremost a document of how communities work. It's no surprise that the plastic populace of ParaNorman has more heart than any of the calcified machotrons in The Expendables 2.
Norman's group of associates in particular form an engaging bunch. As the film's goal is exploring the workings of community, it's intriguing how each of them has to be pushed out of their comfort zone in order to realize their potential as decent human beings. Complacency, as well as the inescapable grasp of the grave, is the Big Bad here.
At its best, which is often, ParaNorman is the kind of horror that reaches beyond the veil. There's a moment, during a school play rehearsal, where the very fabric of reality starts disintegrating around our protagonist, and for just a moment we're seeing Nix visions in stop-motion 3D. If, like me, you've been clamoring for a Lord of Illusions sequel for 15-plus years, then here you have it.
And then there's Neil (voiced by Tyler Abbrizzi). In the way that Tyler Labine in Tucker and Dale Versus Evil was film's 2011 awesome fat guy, then Neil handily takes 2012's award. He's a selfless friend and morally valiant human being who crusades for what's right, unafraid to wield spicy hummus against the forces of darkness.
ParaNorman is the kind of film that doesn't yield all its rewards on a first viewing. Once you have spent some time in Blithe Hollow, though, it becomes the kind of delight that you want to revisit again and again. Norman is a hero for kids who grow up asking questions and who aren't afraid of righting wrongs. Inspirational isn't the word you normally associate with a film featuring the undead, but there's not been a single film out this whole summer with such a noble and steadfast moral vision.