“The zombies, horrified by the overwhelming stimuli of television and set upon by hordes of trigger-happy rednecks and torch-wielding schoolteachers, are one of the film’s many desperate victims of bullying and xenophobia. At its core, ParaNorman is a family comedy about American lynch mobs.”
ParaNorman is a good stop-motion cartoon with a gay kid in it. If you didn’t pay much attention to this movie when it came out last year, either because you don’t have kids or don’t like the horror genre it parodies or just didn’t see much about it in the media, then this might be all you know about it. It’s certainly what raised the biggest fuss, both among those eager to praise the film’s liberal tendencies and professional rage-mongers who supposedly took offense to it. It’s a shame, not just because the film has a lot more to offer, but because all this commotion around it spoils the surprise revelation of the character’s homosexuality, which is a single line at the end of the movie that’s played for laughs. To spoil what’s already been spoiled by the likes of The Advocate and National Review, the gay character is a teenage jock named Mitch (voiced by Casey Affleck), a meat-headed naïf who spends most of the movie as the clueless object of a young girl’s affections.
ParaNorman deserves praise for depicting the first openly gay character in a children’s cartoon (though the key word is openly, since otherwise Mitch was beaten to the punch by Captain Hook and Squidward Tentacles), but far more impressive is its surprisingly hip, honest, and compassionate depiction of modern American childhood, of which the casual inclusion of a gay teenager is just one telling detail. Equally telling are the jokes about police brutality and parents with camcorders, or the references to slasher movies and mental illness, or even the White Stripes bluegrass song “Little Ghost” playing over the end credits. Directed by animators Sam Fell and Chris Butler (the latter also wrote the screenplay), ParaNorman was clobbered at the box office last year by Christoper Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises, a white elephant with half the intelligence of this quirky stop-motion horror-comedy. It’s mired in the sort of creepy-cute aesthetic popularized by Tim Burton and Henry Selick, and pioneered by Edward Gorey and Charles Addams before them, and Butler’s lack of refinement as a writer occasionally shows in clunky and obvious jokes, but ParaNorman is still wittier, more relevant, and more fun than anything the animation goliaths at Pixar have made since 2008’s WALL-E.
The film is set in Blithe Hollow, Massachusetts, a grotesque parody of Salem where the entire local economy and culture revolves around tourist traps related to a famous witch trial in 1712. The witch supposedly cursed the town when she was executed, and gaudy neon lights and billboards advertise witch-themed everything from hotels to hot dogs. It’s all brought to life in top-notch stop-motion animation, the best I’ve seen since Fantastic Mr. Fox and which I regret not having seen in 3D during its theatrical run. Everything from the monster makeup color palette to the exaggerated textures makes Blithe Hollow feel like a living, decaying place, ripe for horrible antics. The original score by Jon Brion, who has previously scored films by Paul Thomas Anderson and Charlie Kaufmann, is as refined and fantastical as the animation, rarely relying on the classic strings section stings and tinkly pianos that spooky mischief usually involves. It also manages to not sound anything like Danny Elfman’s music, one of the film’s more surprising achievements, considering that the art style is so hung up on the influence of Tim Burton’s other long-time collaborators Bo Welch and Henry Selick.
The titular Norman (voiced by Kodi Smit-McPhee) is an awkward little boy who can see and talk to dead people but gets bullied and harassed by almost everyone for it because they think he’s either lying or just plain weird (“limp-wristed,” as his father says). He gets tangled up in a Gothic mystery when he is haphazardly charged with preventing the witch’s curse from waking the dead, a task he naturally fumbles. The ensuing zombies and ghosts and giant spectral faces in the sky give the film a genuine eeriness that I suppose might put off some people, adults or children, but the film is too smart — and too subversive — to rely on these old props for actual scares. Despite their dangling jawbones and monstrous groans, the zombies, horrified by the overwhelming stimuli of television and set upon by hordes of trigger-happy rednecks and torch-wielding schoolteachers, are one of the film’s many desperate victims of bullying and xenophobia. At its core, ParaNorman is a family comedy about American lynch mobs.
To this end, the treatment of the witch in ParaNorman, whether intentionally or not, serves as a sharp and refreshing counterpoint to the inexplicably popular Hocus Pocus, a lame and forgettable live-action Disney film from 1993 that has somehow gathered a huge cult following. While Hocus Pocus is certainly a harmless film, its central premise — that the witches of Salem were, in fact, malevolent brides of Satan straight out ofthe Brothers Grimm — feeds into one of the most obscene pop myths in mainstream American culture. The Crucible may have done some good for leftists in the 1950s, and our term “witch hunt” is one of our most popular buzz phrases, but none if it has stopped the bottomless appetite for supernatural entertainment about cackling hags with black cats and cauldrons. It’s difficult to imagine Birmingham, Alabama, trying to sell the sites of church bombings as cute tourist destinations, yet the figure of the Salem witch persists, on film and television and countless little macabre museums. Where Hocus Pocus played it safe twenty years ago by just dressing up Bette Midler in Halloween drag and giving her a broom to fly on, ParaNorman confronts the true horror of witch trials directly by showing that the witch was actually an innocent little girl who was murdered by a suspicious tribune of Puritan zealots. The film bungles this a bit during the unsatisfying final confrontation between Norman and the ghost of the murdered little girl (who had the same parapsychic abilities as Norman), but Fell and Butler still refuse to sully the memories of the actual human beings who lost their lives in the Salem executions by reinforcing the seemingly innocuous witch motif. The townsfolk of Blithe Hollow, with their witch museums and key chains and giant statue of a cackling hag, are characterized as short-sighted, hypocritical parasites. Even more shocking is that the zombies, who turn out to be the resurrected corpses of the little girl’s accusers, admit that they were fundamentally wrong about the will of God and beg for forgiveness, a small but significant jab at how our veneration of New England Pilgrims obscures their many horrific crimes.
Despite its resemblance to similar stop-motion cartoons, particularly Henry Selick’s Coraline (for which Chris Butler was an animator), the two films ParaNormanreminds me of most are Barry Sonnenfeld’s Addams Family Values and Joe Dante’s Matinee, two brilliant family-friendly comedies about American paranoia, hypocrisy, and bloodthirst. There are the obvious parallels in subject matter between ParaNorman and both of Sonnenfeld’s Addams Family movies, with Charles Addams being the grandfather of an entire subgenre of ironic Gothic horror-humor, but they also share a deeper cynical attitude toward the sanctity of nuclear families, conservative assumptions about gender roles, and the haunted past of American colonization. A corny play put on by the schoolchildren of Blithe Hollow, an offensive re-enactment of the witch’s execution (complete with a comical butchering of Donovan’s “Season of the Witch”), sort of feels like a timid retread of the amazing Thanksgiving play sequence in Addams Family Values. Both films also feature jokes about hangings and burning people alive, and a slapstick bit between Norman and a corpse in a cluttered house is as absurdly casual about death and creepy indoor spaces as a lot of Charles Addams fare, if less witty. There is also a visual reference to the Addams’ Family’s Thing when a zombie’s hand scuttles about disembodied.
ParaNorman is a working-class movie, though, and Sonnenfeld’s satirical sights were more clearly targeted on the bourgeoisie (embodied perfectly by the criminally underrated Joan Cusack, in her most decadent role as a serial killer Barbie). Blithe Hollow has garbage and roadkill in the streets, and all the picket fences have broken boards and chipped paint. ParaNorman doesn’t have anything as bold or transgressive as the hilarious atomic bomb hoax at the climax of Matinee, but they both employ horror and comedy simultaneously to dramatize the awkward struggles of a blue-collar kid in a scary world that they barely understand. The nuclear threat of the Cold War is a fresher and more sublimely terrifying phobia than the isolated witch trials of colonial Massachusetts, but, with the foundation of Miller’s allegorical links between communists and witches and the fact that the 17th century and Moscow might seem equally far away to an eleven-year old, it’s no coincidence that both films toy with these paranoiac fantasies with the same earthy mix of goofy broad humor and startling one-liners. Norman’s obsession with horror films also seems taken right from Matinee, and, considering that it’s far more important in Matinee, I suspect it was intended as an homage (ParaNorman also has an otherwise unrelated B-movie short that looks like a William Castle movie, and John Goodman, who played a fictionalized William Castle in Matinee, has a minor flamboyant role as Norman’s uncle). Fell and Butler also seem to be on Dante’s same wavelength when it comes to integrating postmodern pop savviness into genre entertainment, with nearly everything about Norman’s solitude, cinephilia, and precocious distrust of his community’s political values touching on something Dante explored in his many family-oriented satires from Gremlins to Looney Tunes: Back in Action.
Despite its tendency to rely on stock characters tweaked from their traditional characterizations with only a handful of weird details, ParaNorman seems to understand what it’s like to be a child in 21st-century America than any other animated feature film I’ve seen. The working-class attitude is part of it, but, more specifically, it ties to a more honest look at what American suburbs feel like to young people who have no nostalgic fixation on Leave It to Beaver. These kids have cell phones and send text messages. They watch R-rated movies and know that there’s an adult video store across the street from the Town Hall. They have ear-loop piercings and listen to Dizzee Rascal. Exaggerated though it is, this is closer to the everyday reality of American children than any recent family film I can think, animated or not.
The best character in the film is the fat kid, Neil (voiced by Tucker Albrizzi), a hummus-eating miniature Falstaff to Norman’s whingeing Prince Hal who, despite his obesity and allergies and incorrigible cowardice, seems wholly independent and capable, as his parents are never seen and his main caretaker, his simple-minded older brother, needs more guidance from him than the other way around. The fat kid is always the best character in these films, though: The Goonies, Stand By Me, Super 8, and pretty much any other dark family film about a ragtag group of kids solving a mystery. They should just make these movies about the fat kid. The “normal” brown-haired skinny boy that’s always the protagonist of these films is consistently outshined by the chubby best friend, who is unburdened by the necessity of being a suitable audience surrogate and can flex a strong personality. If ParaNorman left me with one major disappointment, it’s that it didn’t push its wonderful sentiments of nonjudgmental honesty and empathy further and make Neil the hero, but maybe a fat hero and a gay jock in the same cartoon would have doomed this film to obscurity. Judging by their depiction of the Blithe Hollow townsfolk, who turn from warmhearted patriots to murderous lynch mob and back again in the course of a single night, I’d say Fell and Butler, for all their compassion, have an understandably ambivalent attitude toward the twitchy middle Americans who hold the future of their careers in their wallets.