After a summer of by-the-numbers animations, it’s a relief to find one with some underlying creative vision. ParaNorman, which emerges from Laika, the stop-motion whizzes behind 2009’s terrific Coraline, centres on a pre-teen whose best friends are all ghosts, and whose favourite pastime is watching zombie movies – smartly homaged in the opening sequence – with the spirit of his recently deceased grandma. Naturally, Norm’s parents don’t believe that their son sees dead people – “it’s part of the mourning process,” insists Mom – but in the approach to his hometown Blithe Hollow’s 300th anniversary festivities, these sightings are becoming all too common.
Something terrible is clearly about to happen, but the film has a funny way of letting us know: one of the first signs of the upcoming zombie invasion will be a trembling loo-roll dispenser. Alongside the usual knockabout comedy, there’s also a dash of pleasing subtext. It’s down to Norman, with his pluck, resourcefulness and imagination, to lift the curse which has left the town’s residents such dullards; the sharpest gag comes when the zombies, upon their arrival, prove as terrified of the complacency and conformism before their bloodshot eyes as any notionally sentient lifeform is of them. (Blithe Hollow, indeed: what’s the point of returning from the grave to eat brains if there aren’t any on display?)
Cleaving closer to Joe Dante – and TV’s fondly remembered Eerie, Indiana – than it does to Tim Burton, ParaNorman deserves praise for daring to be different. Co-directors Sam Fell and Chris Butler halt the frantic action for a lovely flashback allowing a lonely boy and girl to connect through the ages, and they’ve championed diversity at every possible juncture. It’s there in the voice cast – which extends from indie faves Anna Kendrick and Casey Affleck to Broadway veteran Elaine Stritch and our very own Bernard Hill – and again in their production choices.
Jon Brion’s score ring-fences the melancholy studio executives generally tend to jolly out of their family releases; more cheeringly yet, a late character revelation joins the video for Carly Rae Jepsen’s summer earworm “Call Me Maybe” in suggesting we’re becoming more progressive about the kids we see being represented on screen. Perhaps not for the very young, it’s nevertheless a film sufficiently clued-up to the pleasures of the horror genre to make its motto “there’s nothing wrong with being scared – so long as you don’t let it change who you are”.
ParaNorman opens nationwide today.