“Brains,” the zombie moans as he edges closer and closer; meanwhile a woman screams as she watches in horror.
While this scenario may seem like it’s from a typical zombie slasher flick, it is the opening sequence to “ParaNorman,” directors Chris Butler and Sam Fell’s delightfully charming 3-D stop motion animation film.
The movie follows Norman (Kodi Smit-McPhee), an 11-year-old boy who can see and talk to dead people. While his town, Blithe Hollow, is celebrating its anniversary, Norman learns that the founder has left the citizens a curse: the seven people responsible for a witch’s (Jodelle Ferland) death 300 years ago are resurrected annually as zombies. Because Norman is the only one who can communicate with the dead, he is the only one who can resolve the issue.
Butler, who wrote as well as directed “ParaNorman,” pays homage to other films of its genre. In addition to borrowing the premise from M. Night Shyamalan’s “The Sixth Sense” — a film about a young boy can see the dead — Butler pays tribute to other horror classics. The scene where a group of teens drives over a body on the side of the road resembles the plotline to “I Know What You Did Last Summer.” Meanwhile, another scene features the “Halloween” theme as Norman’s ringtone, as well as Norman’s friend Neil (Tucker Albrizzi) dressed with “Friday the 13th’s” Jason Voorhes’s signature hockey mask.
Despite the ghostly subject matter, the scariest part of the film is grounded in real issues. Anyone can relate to being labeled and bullied as an outsider, or listening to parents arguing, or being ignored like Norman has. The film excels at exploring childhood insecurities and imparting didactic lessons without being too preachy. As Norman’s mom (Leslie Mann) tells him, “Some people say things that may seem mean, but they do it because they are afraid.”
Like the film “Coraline” — which Butler worked as the storyboard supervisor for, the stop motion animation of “ParaNorman” also succeeds at flowing seamlessly as piece of art. In one visually thrilling scene, Norman appears mentally disturbed while talking to invisible imaginary friends. The scene beautifully transitions into the subjective view through Norman’s eyes, revealing the ghosts surrounded by their magical ghostly green auras.
Although “ParaNorman” does many things well, some of the humor seems a bit excessive, especially when the jokes are built for cheap laughs. For example, in one scene, when Norman’s sister Courtney (Anna Kendrick) says the situation “is getting completely out of hand,” a zombie hand appears right in front of her. Although this may seem funny at first, if the same humor device is overused throughout the film, it ceases to be as funny because it borders on cheesy.
There are a few consistent gems though. Elaine Stritch, who voices Norman’s sassy dead grandma, has the funniest lines. In one scene when she is watching a zombie swallow brains on TV while knitting, she responds, “That’s not very nice. He’s going to ruin his appetite.”
Butler also pokes fun at stereotypes, using them as a source of humor and for comic effect. For instance, when Neil is looking to his other brother Mitch (Casey Affleck) to set an example, he argues, “Mitch, you’re the oldest!”
Mitch, a stereotypically well-built, dumb jock often found lifting weights or exercising in his spare time, replies, “Not mentally!”
Butler successfully incorporates this same tongue-in-cheek humor throughout the film, as well as utilizes comedic timing, irony, and satire. For example, in once scene, a “Crime Prevention Ceremony” sign is used to commit an act of breaking in and entering. In another scene, a mob of humans hunts the band of flesh-eating zombies — turning modern convention upside-down.
Not only does “ParaNorman” provide a fresh portrayal to the horror genre — bringing both reality and magic to life — but the movie also proves that Butler has just the right amount of brains to do so.
“ParaNorman” was written by Chris Butler and directed by Butler and Sam Fell.
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