Reviewed by: David Graham

"Overall the characters fail to transcend their archetypes, despite Kodi Smit-McPhee anchoring the film with real emotion."

The best kid-flicks have always throbbed on dark undercurrents, tapping into primal fears that seem hot-wired into us from childhood. Coraline was a perfect example, Neil Gaiman's fertile imagination fusing beautifully with the stunning stop-motion style Henry Selick also brought to Tim Burton's labour of love The Nightmare Before Christmas. ParaNorman works hard to refernce adult horror classics in a way that recalls Shrek's post-modern mugging, but somewhere along the line the story loses its way, descending into cutesiness and repetition despite its amiable irreverence.

Bullied at school and frowned upon at home, Norman lives a lonely life amongst the living because of his paranormal ability to see and engage with the spirits all around him. Even in a tourist trap town that exploits its history of witch trials he's out of place, but the past is about to catch up with its residents: a long-suppressed curse reanimates the corpses of those who wrongfully condemned a restlessly vengeful soul. As the shambling zombies wreak havoc in the streets, a torch-lit mob gathers, bent on mindless destruction, leading Norman to question who the real monsters might be as he tries to restore order and put the dead to rest once and for all.

Copy picture

Opening with a heart-felt pastiche of classic VHS-era zombie flicks - referencing Evil Dead and Return Of The Living Dead as quickly and brazenly as the equally knowing Rango made its adults-only in-jokes - ParaNorman looks initially to have plenty of life in it, sweetly riffing on The Sixth Sense and establishing a gloriously skewed but appealing suburbia with loving craftmanship and spell-binding attention to detail. Norman's domestic and school-day trials are easy to relate to, even without his spooky gift, and there's a subtle creepiness to the autumnal setting and OTT character tropes that pays tribute to the conventions of well-loved horror movies.

As the plot gets more convoluted though, debut writer-director Chris Fell's characterisation gets weaker and the situations grow tiresome - Norman's happy-go-tubby pal is effortlessly endearing but a little too familiar, while the dumb jock and airhead sister only really warrant their presence for sticking true to the predecessors in the likes of Eighties fave The Monster Squad. Christopher Mintz-Plasse's snotty bully enlivens proceedings in the same way the charismatic star brought a touch of subversive spunk to the Fright Night remake, but overall the characters fail to transcend their archetypes, despite Kodi Smit-McPhee anchoring the film with real emotion as the sympathetically burdened Norman (his interactions with his lovable ghost gran are especially heartwarming).

Fright fans will enjoy ticking off the tributes - Return Of The Living Dead Part Two is especially lovingly plundered, with a car-bound severed limb set-piece instantly recognisable if somewhat over-egged - but the charm soon becomes as threadbare as the cadavers' crumbling costumes, despite the painstaking aesthetic. The design of the zombies is brilliant, all sagging flesh and swaying limbs, while the crone-faced thunder-clouds that hover over the town are wonderfully doomy and impressively realised, but the film's conceits quickly become muddled, the ghostly goings-on abruptly giving way to undead action as if the scriptwriters have jumped ship and abandoned their initial idea. The climactic shift into otherworldly fantasy also falls flat, the fairytale resolution feeling somewhat forced and obvious.

Parents shouldn't worry too much about the film's ghoulish leanings - it arguably plays a little too safe in comparison to the significantly edgier and more intense Monster House. That film also balanced its pathos and comedy much more skilfully than ParaNorman, achieving a real bittersweet kick and eliciting cheeky chuckles where audiences will likely just be glad to see this effort eventually grind to a halt. ParaNorman deserves praise for all its ambition and technical wizardry - although the 3D is disappointingly underwhelming, particularly after Coraline's stunningly integrated effects - but ultimately it's a little lifeless, sadly ironic given the subject matter.

Reviewed on: 22 Sep 2012
Share this with others on...
ParaNorman packshot
A misunderstood boy is the only one who can save his town from an ancient curse.
Amazon link

Director: Chris Butler, Sam Fell

Writer: Chris Butler

Starring: Kodi Smit-McPhee, Anna Kendrick, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Casey Affleck, John Goodman

Year: 2012

Runtime: 92 minutes

BBFC: PG - Parental Guidance

Country: US


Glasgow 2014

Search database: