I have the sense ParaNorman (2012) went wrong when the powers-that-be sat down to discuss what kind of animated film they wanted to make. Scripts are just words written on pieces of paper if you’re lucky or otherwise displayed on screens of various sizes. When it comes to animation, you can take a simple sentence and make it scary for kids or horror for adults, rotfl for smsers or laugh-out-loud for adults. How you show characters saying the words can be adjusted to whatever audience you’re aiming at. So when the powers-that-be sat down, I think they failed to decide what their intended audience was going to be. The result is something that, at times, may be too scary for young children but is never scary at all to those with any intelligence, with a sense of humour that ranges from the juvenile fixation with what goes on in the toilet stall to distinctly adult sensibilities. I think the rule is you either make an animated film for children with just enough to keep parents from passing out with boredom, or you make an adult film and, if parents are daft enough to take their slightly older children, they can do all the explaining afterwards.
So what do we actually get in this package? Let’s start with the stop-motion animation which is stunningly good. Although there’s some CGI in there, all the main action revolves around the use of physical puppets on actual sets using real props. The loving care invested shines through the screen and produces a visual delight. Now come the characters. Norman Babcock (Kodi Smit-McPhee) himself is one of life’s natural victims. His hair stands up and his ears stand out. As if this was not enough to make him the focus of attention for every bully in the world — in this case led by Alvin (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) — not only does he see ghosts, but he insists on telling everyone about it. So, not surprisingly, he goes into school and is greeted by the word “freak” written on his locker. The only one even remotely in as much trouble is the inevitable fat boy, Neil (Tucker Albrizzi). Together, they make a good pair. However, there’s a major discontinuity between the first fifteen minutes and the rest of the film. We start off with Norman watching a creature feature on television with his grandmother (Elaine Stritch). It seems she died some years ago but is sticking around to keep an eye on our boy in case he gets himself into trouble. Then we see him walking off to school, first without his world view and then watching him react to all the ghosts around him. He’s hardly able to walk in a straight line, ducking and weaving through the crowds around him. But, once he passes through the school gates, we never see him fail to walk or ride his bicycle in a straight line. There’s never another hint he’s reacting to anything except two ghosts. His grandmother and his uncle who has the temerity to die before he can tell Norman how to deal with the “curse”.
The rest of the family is mother Sandra (Leslie Mann), father Perry (Jeff Garlin) and older sister Courtney (Anna Kendrick). In all films where the hero is a boy on the cusp of teenager status, older sisters exist in a parallel dimension, aware of their brothers in a vague way but never inclined to involve themselves in anything affecting them. The parents view their offspring as at a dangerous stage and fear for them (or maybe, as in this case, they’re afraid of them). The school has one of these over-the-top women as a drama teacher, the town has a sheriff and dim deputy, and there are the usual assortment of locals from the hillbilly yokel to well-heeled middle class citizens.
The plot is struggling to fill time allotted. In the distant past, seven Puritans conspired to kill a talented girl as a witch. Naturally, she was upset and cursed them. Once a year, on the anniversary of her burning, the seven undead return unless the witch is persuaded to go back to sleep. This task is passed down from one generation to the next except Norman fails to get the message in time. He therefore has to wing it, reacting to circumstances as best he can. Some of the early set pieces are wonderfully amusing but, in humour terms, the film shoots its bolt early. Thereafter, we’re left with a mixture of adventure and some preachy sequences when the film-makers thought they’d better give the kids an ear-bending on the need to look for the good in people, not to bully the vulnerable and not to judge people by appearances. All the pace evaporates and plot logic is sacrificed. For example, seven undead would be ripped to pieces and trampled to dust in five minutes by this marauding bunch of townsfolk. The failure to actually burn down the town hall is inexplicable. And so on.
So we should be thankful ParaNorman (2012) rejects the Disney animation approach which is to make all the humans and animals cute. You couldn’t hope to find a more dysfunctional town of people than this unhappy bunch. But the film fails to follow its own logic and so produce something satirical or frightening. Yes, there are some very funny moments, but they grow increasingly rare as the film progresses to what should be the major confrontation at the end. Sadly, there’s no real sense of menace or tension. Once the true character of the witch is revealed in a flashback midway through, even a five-year-old could predict how it will all end. So this is not a Coraline (2009) or Corpse Bride (2005). Rather it’s a film that couldn’t decide what it wanted to be and, in trying to be all things to all people, failed to keep enough of the people happy for long enough, leaving us with an empty spectacle — beautiful to behold but lacking in substance.