There are two tragedies to “ParaNorman.” First, it is a travesty that this film flopped at the box office and has faded into obscurity. Second, the film itself is a tragedy because it tells a story about the various ways that fear, mob mentality and prejudice create cycles of suffering for everyone caught up in them.
That — and the fact that it is a well-written, visually creative movie — is why every child should see it.
Released by the American stop-motion animation studio Laika in 2012, “ParaNorman” is about an 11-year-old Massachusetts boy named Norman Babcock (Kodi Smit-McPhee) who can talk to the dead. He is not believed and endures rejection and ridicule from his community. He is the focus of discrimination from bullies (particularly one played by Christopher Mintz-Plasse), and frustration from some of his family (including his father Perry played by Jeff Garlin and sister Courtney played by Anna Kendrick), although he has a sympathetic friend Neil (Tucker Albrizzi) and mother Sandra (Leslie Mann). Yet soon everyone is forced to believe him when a 300-year curse placed on the town by a witch Agatha (Jodelle Ferland) causes zombies to rise from the grave.
This may sound like intense stuff for younger children, but the execution and payoff are so wonderful (I chose that adjective carefully) that anyone who has not yet reached maturity — a characterization that includes many adults — should watch it. It achieves its most immediate task of being very entertaining with colorful stop-motion animation, riveting action, well-developed and realistic characters, smart dialogue and clever set pieces that poke fun at zombie movie tropes. (I laughed out loud at a gag involving a bag of potato chips in a vending machine and another about zombies from the 18th century reacting to 21st century technology.) Hell, I even cried at the climactic ending sequence. The hackneyed cliche is true here: This movie literally made me both laugh and cry.
Yet the movie is also quite profound. Major spoilers follow.
The plot is set in motion when Norman’s supposedly crazy uncle Mr. Prenderghast (John Goodman) dies, becomes a ghost and tells Norman that he has a sacred responsibility. He must read a fairy tale to the deceased witch Agatha at her grave in order to keep the zombies from terrorizing the town. Trouble inevitably ensues, and for the first two-thirds of the film it is a conventional (but still high quality) family comedy in the light horror genre. The story has a very effective twist, though: It turns out that when she was still alive Agatha wasn’t an evil witch, but a scared child who just like Norman had also been rejected by the community because she was different. Unlike Norman, though, she was a girl during the literal witch hunts that occurred in Massachusetts in the 18th century. When a group of town leaders executed her, she cursed them into becoming zombies as punishment.
As a result, the zombies aren’t actually a threat to the living human beings of Norman’s community, any more than Agatha would have been to her 18th century peers if they had simply accepted her for who she was. Their curse is that they have to suffer the irrational and unjust mass fear that they forced upon Agatha. Her personal tragedy is that she died so young and became a monster like her tormentors because of the wrong that was done to her. The tragedy for both Norman and his community is that, like their predecessors 300 years earlier, they don’t know how to understand each other.
This means that, in the end, the bad guy in “ParaNorman” is fear, not any character singled out to be an antagonist. The underlying message is that all human beings can become monsters if they don’t examine their prejudices, the things that make them afraid. The monsters range in form from meathead bullies and rude strangers to angry mobs and oppressive authority figures. When Norman saves the day, it is because he shows empathy and open-mindedness to everyone — the town, the zombies and the witch — and encourages them to do likewise.
It’s a beautiful and timeless message, although writing this when President Donald Trump has nearly turned America into a fascist dictatorship due to a coup attempt makes it particularly resonant today. (There is also a sly pro-gay rights subplot that I won’t dare spoil here.) I wish everyone in America — nay, the world — could and would see “ParaNorman.”