Spoilers: Yes (after Part One)
Audience Assumptions: None
Part One: It Looks Like Psychonauts. Of Course I’m Going to Love It.
This is a singular animated film. Watching it the first time, I was struck by its artistry and twisting narrative. Watching the second time, I was struck by how incredible each of those features was.
Paranorman is a small story — smaller than you might imagine from its adventure-promising cover. The film all takes place within a single town, and while it manages to work in ghosts, zombies, and a witch, all of these elements condense into a surprisingly straightforward plot. The structure of the film is matched to each of the monsters, and all of them are connected to a degree than even tighter films would envy.
Of course, this is something of a necessity for stop-motion animation. While there are a few stop-motion films that manage that sense of grand scale (Kubo and the Two Strings, also from the studio LAIKA, being one of the most recent examples), most rely on more limited locations. Sets have to be built individually, every component hand-crafted to look realistic even at a tiny scale. Modern stop-motion is under especially intense pressure to look good when it’s competing with fully CG films that can seemingly produce anything.
And Paranorman does compete. The film incorporates its own CGI for special effects, distant backgrounds, and erasing visible armatures, but the digital imagery is blended seamlessly with the more traditional stop-motion animation techniques. The detail work is amazing, to the point where the plot almost gets in the way of the miniatures (but doesn’t quite). Stop motion is one of those arts that I will gladly watch documentaries about simply to marvel at the patience and devotion involved, and while I’ve only been able to find a few behind-the-scenes looks at this particular film, what is available is a joy to behold.
However, it’s the film’s visual style more so than its realism that makes it artistically viable. The characters are exaggerated and often asymmetrical in a way that makes them look like hand-drawn characters intended for a video game. Actually, many of the character designs have tones reminiscent of the style of Psychonauts and similar games (that’s not the only reason I love this film, I swear). However, even within a recognizable aesthetic subgenre, the film is unmistakable. The hair of the characters is a particular tell — I don’t know that I’ve ever seen a film that managed to make its characters’ hair look simultaneously doll-like and richly textured.
The animation is very smooth for a stop-motion film, but that also just adds to the film’s identity. LAIKA is well-known for the enormous number of models that it uses to capture up to millions of facial expressions, and the results show here. Characters display immense emotion comparable to any high-fidelity computer animation, but the small irregularities of stop-motion animation give the characters a visual personality that makes each step unique. The physical humor makes clever use of the medium, and that also translates to increased tension when the characters are in real danger. Stop-motion is a tricky medium to work in, but the results are gorgeous.
Part Two: It Is the Gayest, and Therefore, the Best
The plot of the film is deceptively straightforward; the protagonist, Norman, lives in a small Salem-like town known for its historical witch trial and rumored curse, now used to make the town a tourist trap. Norman talks to ghosts, who only he and his weird uncle can see. Because of his oddness, Norman doesn’t fit in at school and tends toward reclusivity and passivity. This is a throughline and fundamental setup for the themes of the film, but the functional plot kicks off when Norman starts to see something other than ghosts — glimpses at the past and portents of the historic witch’s curse. His uncle informs him that the witch is waking up, as she does each year, and now that he’s on the brink of death, Norman must take up the mantle of reading from a special book to keep the witch asleep. Otherwise, according to the curse, the dead will rise.
Surprise, surprise, something goes wrong and the seven accusers at the witch’s trial who put her to death are revived as zombies. From there, Norman teams up with a ramshackle group of kids — including a new friend he’s made at school, the school bully, his friend’s older brother, and his own older sister — to stop the witch and the zombies.
The characters, aside from having excellent designs, are each dynamic and well-characterized. Norman is a surprisingly soft-spoken and peaceful protagonist, willing to endure a lot for the sake of empathy. He’s not exactly passive — he has agency, choosing to put himself in harm’s way rather than being forced into it, and his non-actions come with considerable deliberation and planning.
His sister, Courtney, is a stereotypical teenage girl with all of the flaws and charisma that comes with it, but she isn’t actively cruel. She has a realistic rivalry going with Norman and is a surprisingly funny character at times. She also gets a heartwarming supporting moment.
Neal is introduced as a random kid at school who takes notice of Norman seemingly for the first time at the start of the film. A couple of recent deaths (namely Norman’s grandmother’s and Neal’s dog’s) may be the reason for it, but either way, Neal is the only living character other than Norman’s uncle who doesn’t treat his ability to see ghosts as weird. Norman takes a while to warm up to him, as Neal likes to draw attention to Norman’s ability in a positive way and has a more outgoing personality. However, while somewhat useless within the story, he’s significant as a demonstration of the good of humanity. Neal is comic relief, but also the glue that holds the characters together.
Less is true of Alvin, the school bully. He gets roped into the adventure largely by accident, both partly responsible for the mishaps in the second third of the film and a bystander to them. He’s also comic relief (most of the characters are, to be honest — this is something of a kids’ horror comedy), but also there to represent the pettiness of the town prejudice. Alvin is presented as pathetic, a bully simply because he can be, and willing to drop cruel behaviors at the slightest hint of any distraction. He doesn’t necessarily redeem himself so much as demonstrate that people’s actions and character aren’t wholly interlocked. He continues to be a bit slimy up through the end, but he isn’t really a villain any more than Courtney or Norman’s narrow-minded parents.
Mitch is Neal’s older brother, again comic relief, and possibly the best character in the film. He’s just sort of a big dim-witted jock who loves his car and doesn’t think much for himself, and as a result, he gets some of the best lines and visual humor when left to his own devices. Perhaps the most remarkable things about this character is that he’s also openly gay. If you’re canny to the push for queer representation in family films, you’re probably already aware of this, but Mitch was one of the first queer characters in a family animated film, a huge step considering he states it rather clearly. Toward the end of the film, after Courtney doting on Mitch for the entire adventure, he tells her that she’d love his boyfriend. It’s a joke, sure, and the boyfriend never shows up, but it’s unambiguous and wholly sincere. The joke comes at the cost of Courtney for making assumptions, not Mitch. I’d like to see more of this sort of thing, especially in films that are about character relationships and assumptions. It’s adorable.
Speaking of queerness, I should probably address the prevalence of the subtext within the film. While the film is technically about prejudice toward fantastical things, it has wide applicability. The clearest parallel, and the one the film likes to draw parallels to through Norman’s ostracization and soft-spoken character, is queerness. Specific lines of dialogue even draw this connection directly, with Norman’s father speaking about his ability to see ghosts with all of the subtlety of an X-Men character. Beyond that, though, the apparent normalcy of Norman and the witch, as well as the direct text of witch trials (which were historically used to persecute gay men at times), have roots in queer subtext more than most.
Part Three: This Film is So Sincere, It Hurts
The final third of the film is easily the strongest, with the kids soon learning that nothing is as simple as fairytales and that real villains aren’t so cut-and-dry. While fleeing the zombies, Norman starts to piece together what really happened those centuries ago. A young girl, no older than himself, and with powers like himself, was accused of witchcraft by a town that didn’t understand her, and feared her. They killed her for being different, not realizing that in doing so, they sealed their own fates. Rather than the classic horror monsters, these zombies are vulnerable, scared, unable to communicate with anyone other than Norman, and subject to the fearful violence of the modern-day town mob.
The film has a rather optimistic look at prejudice, perhaps to the point of being unrealistic given the current climate of fear and hatred. It’s willing to redeem all of its characters, even those who horrible things. However, it doesn’t bandy about the consequences of prejudice; a kid dies because of it. Characters are constantly in peril, and get hurt. Death is a legitimate consequence in this film. Even though the film is willing to forgive those who do terrible things and show the complexity of human behavior, it takes a firm stance on those actions themselves being unforgivable.
At the end of the day, the town is not saved through violence, but compassion. The ending is the sort that can make you tear up pretty readily, especially if you’ve ever been in a situation where you or someone you know has ever been surrounded by oppressive forces and felt powerless to stop them. There’s something powerful in the idea that seemingly insurmountable dangers have simple explanations. The antagonistic characters act out for various reasons — some petty, like Alvin, while others claim provocation, like the witch. Their actions don’t need that justification, and often far exceed any logical tradeoff, distilling down to mere cruelty. Prejudice is like that; it’s just malice, in the end, disconnected from reason or purpose other than to hurt. The witch toys with the zombies and Norman, destroying the town like a child burning ants.
Combating that sort of wanton destruction is hard. It’s one of the hardest things anyone can do. Not everyone can (or should) endure the sort of hammering Norman receives every time he tries to make good on his promise to stop the witch. But he does, because solving the problem non-violently — facing the monster unarmed not because he’s unprepared, but because he doesn’t want to hurt it — that’s the solution that fits Norman’s character.
The final climax tugs at the heartstrings in a way I think few films truly can. It captures a sense of positivity that isn’t naive to the harsh realities of the world, but still exists in a sort of pleasant fantasy. The world portrayed in Paranorman is one where monsters aren’t good or evil, they’re just people. It’s a film that is critical of the vicious way we treat each other and aims for a better future — not one that’s really all that different, but one that is nonetheless a nicer place. It’s a feel-good film, but the sort that really appeals to me and my own weird sensibilities. A lot of our fictional media could learn a lesson or two from it.
Characters and Character Development: 7
Aesthetics and Style: 7
Overall Plot: 8