With the UK release of Chris Butler and Sam Fell’s ParaNorman 3D (2012), comparisons with Tim Burton’s Frankenweenie (2012) seem almost unavoidable. Both claymation features draw upon established horror classics (albeit from different cinematic eras), and yet remain very different films in their own right. Whereas Burton pays tribute to 1930s horror, ParaNorman salutes the zombie flicks of the 1970s and 80s. It’s also a modern day fairytale that owes as much to 1980s cult cinema (Fell has referred to the influence of 1985’s The Breakfast Club), as it does to the horror genre.
Norman Babcock (voiced by Kodi Smit-McPhee) is a boy with problems. His family think he’s a freak, his life at school is no better and the townsfolk see him as a nuisance. This is because Norman has a gift – he sees dead people (cue The Sixth Sense reference). Norman discovers from his estranged Uncle Prendergast (John Goodman) that his hometown of Blithe Hollow is under a curse from a witch who was hanged by zealous puritans centuries ago. With his chubby friend Neil (Tucker Albrizzi), cheerleader sister Courtney (Anna Kendrick) and the rest of the pseudo-Scooby gang in tow, Norman must battle the undead to restore order.
Butler, who previously worked on Coraline (2009) and Burton’s The Corpse Bride (2005), has utilised a similar aesthetic, yet with his own quirky twist. The stop-motion animation uses new 3D printing technology, achieving spectacular results. Each of ParaNorman’s scenes are loaded with expressive characters and magnificently spooky backdrops, such as zombie puritans rising from the grave in a wood of eerie and gnarled trees.
Quirky and humorous, this is an entertaining animation with many strong aspects, although the plot still has its problems. The zombie curse that Blithe Hollow is under seems very non-threatening. The zombies present no peril and appear more frightened by the modern world than anything else. It’s an intelligent inversion, but also serves to remove any sense of threat that the monsters may pose. The main message, however, remains cogent – highlighting the dangers of mob violence and religious persecution, shown from the playground to the reaction of the townsfolk.
The final scene is a tremendously dramatic sequence that expresses the message of the film in an audibly violent and impassioned way, displaying a level of bravery rarely seen in children’s cinema. Yet as visually pleasing as ParaNorman is, along with its strong moral message, the story’s structure ultimately lets it down. Narrative qualms aside, this remains a kooky and spooky animation with a great deal of heart and visual splendour.