Norman sees dead people—and talks with them, too. And now we know, as he does, that dead people really do like their crass jokes.
Being dead can be such a drag.
First, you totally miss eating out. Even if you could chow down on a Cobb salad at Denny's or something, you couldn't order it: The wait staff there doesn't hear ghosts and refuses to serve zombies.
Second, conversations can be deadly dull. You can only hear people complain about their rigor mortis for so long before you start dying to meet somebody new. Someone who's not so terminal.
No wonder Norman's so well-liked among the dearly departed. Just like that one kid in that one movie, he sees dead people. He can understand them. And instead of running away and seeking professional help from Bruce Willis, Norman speaks to them. Nice kid, that Norman.
Alas, Norman's popularity among the dead does not translate well to the living in his hometown of Blithe Hollow. Whereas his less-than-live associates see a polite, conscientious boy, most of the quick just see a kid who talks incessantly to himself. His parents don't understand him. His sister, Courtney, thinks he's hopelessly lame. His schoolmates? Let's just say that boys who talk with the dead are about as popular in middle school as boys who talk with their Cheetos.
But just when things seem to be looking up for Norman, he's accosted by a smelly, bearded, very disturbing guy—his uncle, as it turns out—who says Norman has to stop an ancient curse conjured up by a witch 300 years ago. If he doesn't, the dead will rise from their graves, shuffle into town and cause who knows what sorts of problems. This time, Norman won't be the only one bothered by the dead.
Sure, being buried can be a bummer. But life's no piece of cake for Norman either.
[Note: Spoilers are contained in the following sections.]
ParaNorman has some issues, and we'll get to those soon. But strip away the supernatural facade, and you'll find that the movie isn't about talking with ghosts and zombies so much as it's about bullying, bravery, acceptance and forgiveness.
Norman's "different," no question. Anyone who's dealt with bullies understands how scary being different can be, particularly if you're still in school. But ParaNorman makes it clear that being different isn't all bad. In fact, our differences not only make us who we are, but give us the power to do good for the folks around us—a fantastic message for those who've ever felt a little out of step with the mainstream.
Not that this makes Norman's job any easier. To save Blithe Hollow from the curse, Norman must put himself in very real danger, and he's understandably terrified. But his grandmother (dead, of course) gives him some solid advice: "There's nothing wrong with being scared, Norman, as long as you don't let it change who you are."
Norman doesn't, and it's the kid's kindness that winds up saving the day. See, the "witch" in question was really just a girl named Aggie, a kid kind of like Norman—someone who had a supernatural ability that terrified the puritanical villagers at the time and got her (presumably) burned at the stake. Wreaking revenge, she curses the people responsible and refuses to let go of her grudge until Norman helps her to finally rest in peace.
Norman's not the only hero on the scene, though. Courtney defends her little bro during a critical showdown with the townsfolk, and his father comes to, if not fully understand his son, at least accept him—weird little gift and all.
So, let's get the obvious out of the way: This movie is full of dead people. It's possible that even the Witch of Endor would be freaked out by the mess o' spirits we see here. And while none of the spiritual content is meant to be taken too seriously, its pervasiveness can still hold sway in some moviegoers' minds, especially younger ones.
We hear from Norman that not everyone becomes a ghost after death: It's mainly folks who die suddenly or still have some "work" to do. Norman's grandmother says that she should be "frolicking in paradise with your grandfather," but adds she's never been much for frolicking and frets there might not be cable. Plus, she tells Norman, she promised herself that she'd look out for her grandson.
The witch's curse calls forth dead of an altogether different type: shambling zombies, reanimated but with their personalities and souls still intact, apparently. We don't get a sense that Aggie was practicing the Dark Arts, even in raising beings from the dead. She tells her accusers that she was "only playing." And she clearly doesn't understand and perhaps can't fully control what she's doing (much like Norman's own talent). But her power still eventually manifests as something angry and evil: She's punishing the reanimated dead, in a sense. She wants to remind them—and remind them for all eternity—what it's like to be "different" and to be preyed upon by the fearfully narrow-minded. (Eventually they are released from their curse and fade away, presumably to whatever peaceful afterlife awaits them.)
But while these abilities may not have what we would precisely call "spiritual" roots in ParaNorman's ethos, the film does cast sly dispersions upon the religious people who sent Aggie to her death. We hear that the original settlers of Blithe Hollow were strict and sincere believers and, as such, they assumed (wrongly, it's suggested) that Aggie's abilities came from the devil (or at least an evil source of some sort).
Oh, and I haven't mentioned yet that Norman has an obsession with zombies. His room is festooned with zombie posters, he turns off a zombie alarm clock to wake up in the morning, and he brushes his teeth with a zombie-themed toothbrush. His father, who seems rather out of touch with his son, frets that he's probably playing with Ouija boards or orbs up in his room. Elsewhere, we see a bumper sticker that reads, "My other car is a broom." Norman's mother says, "Not believing in the afterlife is like not believing in astrology." Norman at first thinks that he'll need to cast a spell to reverse the curse.
Courtney falls for Neil's brother, a muscle-bound jock who, when she first meets him, is wearing just a towel around his waist. She flirts with the guy incessantly and, in the end, seems to secure a movie date with him. That's when Courtney finds out that he's gay. "You're gonna love my boyfriend," he says. "He's like a total chick-flick nut!"
Alvin, a bully-turned-semi-good-guy, regularly tries to impress girls with his breakdancing skills and braggadocio ways. He makes a reference to an adult video store. Norman tells his parents that Courtney is hiding pictures of the high school quarterback in her underwear drawer. A billboard for a casino depicts a buxom "witch" in stockings and skimpy outfit. A character pauses his mom's aerobic video to ogle a woman's backside.
Blithe Hollow's zombified residents look a little worse for wear—and suffer a number of physical humiliations as the movie shambles on. They're clearly rotting, and one drops an ear. (Norman kindly helps him find it.) Others lose arms or are shot through the guts during battles with the living. We can see straight through one zombie's abdomen. And another loses his head, literally, when hit by a car. Their dead appendages are still quite active, naturally, and for all the body parts flying around, the film feels more silly than gory.
A zombie runs into a door and gets her teeth stuck. (See? Silly.) Another's face seems to be sagging off his jawbone rather grotesquely. Villagers assault zombies with all sorts of makeshift weapons and try to burn down city hall, nearly killing the living inhabitants inside.
Aggie's powers, though, are quite frightening and dangerous. She causes wooden thorns to spike from the ground, nearly impaling Norman. She nearly throws him from a crumbling bit of earth in a weird dreamlike sequence. She blasts various bits of witch-kitsch in town, apparently offended by her depiction as an old crone with a long nose. Monstrous trees talk and leer.
In a B-movie that Norman's watching, a zombie attacks a woman. ("The zombie is eating her head, Grandma," he explains, though we don't see the snack onscreen.) In the same movie, we see a cartoonish brain on the floor with a bite taken out of it. (When Norman's father asks what he's watching, Norman says, "Sex and violence.") Norman battles the corpse of his uncle to retrieve a book—repeatedly knocking the dead man's head into a table. The corpse eventually falls on Norman. Someone punches Neil in the chest. ("Ow! My boobs!" he says.) We see a dead raccoon. Norman gets pushed to the ground by a bully.
Crude or Profane Language
One use of "a‑‑," one "p‑‑‑ed" and one "jeez," along with at least three misuses of God's name. Norman's uncle forces him to promise to fulfill his quest. "Swear!" his uncle says. "You mean like the f-word?" Norman replies.
Drug and Alcohol Content
Norman's uncle has several vials of pills, apparently for a (previous) medical condition.
Other Negative Elements
Norman first encounters the ghost of his uncle in a bathroom stall. The man peers from the toilet bowl, then pops out. Their conversation culminates in an explosion that sends the bystanding Alvin hurtling into the urinals. "You might want to give that a few minutes," Norman says, flushing the toilet and running out of the bathroom.
Neil reunites with his dead dog and winds up kissing the beast's rear instead of face. A tongue lolls out of a corpse's mouth, slapping Norman in the face. We see a "no dumping" sign, shaped like a dog about to defecate. Someone paints graffiti on a toilet stall. There's talk of peeing one's pants and a reference to "mouth diarrhea." Someone suggests kicking an animated tree "in the nut hole." A sign for the restaurant Witchy Wiener loses the first W.
Bullying is big news these days. Every month, it seems, we hear the tragic story of a victim who committed suicide. And sometimes we hear about a victim who becomes the assailant, seeking revenge on his classmates, his teachers, anyone whom he blames for his suffering. And for every story we hear or see, there are thousands—tens of thousands—we don't. Bullies and the bullied populate every grade in every school. Somewhere near you, there's a boy who gets stomachaches because he's scared to go to class; a girl who spends her lunchtime hiding in a bathroom stall, too terrified to show her face.
For adults steeped in such headlines, it's hard not to watch ParaNorman without hearing the echoes of Colorado's Columbine High School shootings in Aggie's uncontrollable anger. And as such, the movie's message is clear, poignant and powerful: Be kind to one another—and if someone's not so kind to you, don't return the favor. Don't let your anger choke and consume you. Don't let your rage destroy who you are.
Some Christians watching the film may, naturally, find a more discouraging subtext. Aggie was persecuted by "intolerant" believers three centuries ago, and the film draws a clear line from that era to the intolerance shown by Blithe Hollow's modern-day residents.
Sections of the secular world often lambast Christians, particularly evangelical Christians, for their supposed intolerance, and we evangelicals are naturally sensitive to the subject. But be that as it may, I don't think that's where this film stumbles. After all, we're called by Jesus to be far more than tolerant. We're called to love one another, just as God has loved us. And even when we disagree with someone's lifestyle or choices, that doesn't ever relieve us of that need—that directive—to love them.
No, this film falls flat elsewhere: its grotesque gags and hinky spirituality, its really scary imagery and needlessly crass punchlines. ParaNorman's heart is in the right place. But its brain? It feels as though someone's been gnawing on it for a while.