One of the more difficult accomplishments a film can attempt is trying to entertain children while maintaining elements that hold some appeal for adults. It’s a balancing act that has been attempted since Warner Bros. first trotted out Bugs Bunny. The latest entry to broach that notoriously difficult task is Paranorman, written by Chris Butler and directed by Chris Butler and Sam Fell.
Paranorman opens with a pretty clever sequence poking loving fun at low budget horror movies. This sequence involves Norman(Kodi Smit-McPhee), our protagonist, watching a B-level horror movie with his grandmother. From there we move on to a noticeably less clever sequence that introduces the audience to Norman’s family and surrounding world which, from the beginning, resembles a horror movie in itself. The horror element is Norman’s unique gift which has ostracized him from his peers and family. Let’s just say Norman may, or may not have a “sixth sense”.
The strength of Paranorman lies in the spectacle. Stop-motion animation is a difficult medium to work within. Dealing with the practical application of stop-motion figures can limit that magical effect that other forms of animation excel at. More than any other form of animation, stop-motion must reckon and overcome the limits of the physical world. The makers of Paranorman, though, manage to create a beautiful and seemingly limitless world. Gone are the obvious limits of clay figures, replaced instead by a fluidity that would be impressive by any form of animation, let alone stop-motion. That spectacle, however, is dulled a bit by the questionable use of 3-D. While adding no real depth or artistry, the 3-D manages only to dim the image noticeably which damages the major accomplishment of Paranorman, the visual virtuosity.
Unfortunately, the 3-D transfer did nothing to help the two-dimensional script and characters of Paranorman. The characters are made up of two groups, simple caricatures and exaggerated stereotypes. For example, you have the adorable, goofy sidekick, the idiot bully, the boorish but loving father, and the sassy African-American police officer. All of these, among others, go through the story waving their cliches about in predictable and boring ways. Which brings us to the story itself. Instead of a well conceived plot, the audience is given a plodding story that seems like it was written by an improv group made up of twelve year-olds.
To be fair, a portion of that is most likely due to the fact that Paranorman is a movie geared towards children. Those exaggerated characters and simplistic storyline are a direct result of its target audience. While I can’t speak on how well this film works for the children demographic, I can safely state it never manages to truly provide enough material to keep the adults in the audience engaged.
That said, there are a few moments that do shine in Paranorman. Those sparse moments are the sequences that are explicitly aimed at the adults. There is a sense of parody and loving tribute to horror movies of old that can’t help but elicit positive, if not nostalgic, emotions. From “Halloween” to “Night of the Living Dead” there are sequences that directly nod to classic horror in a lighthearted and loving way. It is clear the makers of Paranorman know and love horror movies. It is also clear they truly wanted to make a film that playfully introduces older children to those familiar motifs and themes. The shame though, is that when attempting to balance between pleasing the children and entertaining the adults, Paranorman never really succeeds at either.