Like most children I had big dreams, plans to change the world when I grew up. I remember thinking in middle school that I could write a novel. I was smart enough to do it; all I needed was a good premise and some hard work to make a great story. As a preternaturally reflective child, I thought that I should write about what I knew, namely the experience of being a kid, since I thought that no one could better represent a child’s psychology than someone young enough to intimately remember the experience; keep in mind that I was in middle school and thought that I had gotten past childhood because I was undergoing puberty, but I still recognized that I didn’t have the temporal distance that adults have, which colors their characterization of childhood.
Unfortunately, this dream of writing an accurate representation of childhood was made more poignant when I experienced a premature academic burnout in the first semester of high school. Long story short, I was attending a private school and the demands of the schoolwork, which were aggravated by dysgraphia, proved to great a strain for me to handle. After a semester of getting four to six hours of sleep and working on homework nearly from the time I got home to when I went to bed, I chose to switch to a nearby public high school, leaving my close friends at the private school in favor of sleep and a semblance of sanity. Life got better and I eventually recovered from a period of bitterness and dark cynicism when I managed to make new friends. Ironically, the days of my worst bitterness were also days I spent feeling a bittersweet nostalgia for a childhood that I felt had been taken from me. The desire to write about childhood and also young adulthood persisted, but it was colored by a new sense of loss and desire to recover more innocent days.
I never wrote much about my childhood or experiences going through puberty in middle school. Although the dream wasn’t entirely idle, since I did write a few poems about my experiences, I never caught the spirit of childhood like I had first hoped in middle school. However, I did find a fondness for several bildungsromans that captured the essence of childhood and early adolescence that spoke both to my emotional turbulence and to my sense of nostalgia: Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes and Dandelion Wine. Bradbury caught a sense of the magic, the light and darkness of childhood and adolescence. Later, I’d find that same essence encapsulated in the works of Stephen King, namely his famous short story, “The Body,” which was adapted for the screen as Stand by Me, and one of his most famous novels, It, which also has a great adaptation for the screen. It’s certainly no coincidence that I became so fond of the oft dark depictions of childhood because my love of horror was fostered around the beginning of high school, concurrent with my feelings of brooding darkness that were a product of both trying experiences and the emotional turmoil that seems inherent in the transition from childhood to adolescence. However, I appreciated these stories because they seemed like honest depictions of childhood, not just because they had dark subject matter. The kids in the Bradbury and King stories have complex thoughts and feelings, are worldly in ways that parents don’t like to admit and yet also naïve, and have conflicts that are more serious than can be captured in “a very special episode” of some sitcom; This is all to say that they portray childhood as both light and dark, Disney and Grimm. ParaNorman strikes me as the story of child written by someone who understands children, by someone who wants to portray childhood as it really is, humorous and serious, light and dark. That it’s a beautiful stop-animated film made by the same studio that produced Coraline certainly doesn’t hurt either.
ParaNorman is the story of a young boy named Norman Babcock who can see and talk to the dead, much to the dismay of his family and his hometown, Blithe. Although Norman is a lonely, misunderstood child, he makes an uneasy friendship with fellow outcast Neil, who is made fun of for being fat; their relationship is uneasy because Norman is accustomed to solitude, though quite lonely, and he seems afraid to make an emotional connection to Neil. Unfortunately for Norman, things take a turn for the worse when he starts having visions of Blithe’s sordid past and the undead; we learn that one of the town’s key moments was when seven townspeople were cursed to rise from the grave for sentencing a woman to hang for witchcraft. Mr. Prenderghast, Norman’s uncle and town crazy, tells Norman that he has to stop the witch’s curse from raising the seven dead townspeople. It’s up to Norman to stop the zombies and witch’s curse, but he has help from his friend Neil, his sister Courtney, Neil’s brother Mitch, and the bully Alvin, who are all inadvertently roped into his quest to save the town.
What I like about this film is that it seems to render a realistic vision of childhood and of children. Norman has a nuanced personality. He is a lonely outcast, but he’s also uncomfortable with becoming friends with Neil because he’s leery of embracing others in a community that has largely ridiculed him. However, he manages to grow as a person and learns to forgive the town for ridiculing him while staying true to himself. His best friend Neil also comes off as a realistic kid, one who deflects criticism and accepts his position, using that self-confidence to persist reaching out to Norman even when Norman is reticent to make friends. What I’m trying to say is that Norman and Neil feel like people, not caricatures of children. Furthermore, the story delves into the tribulations of childhood, bullying, harsh teachers, and adult hypocrisy as well as the extremely heavy subject of death. The reason I single the tribulations out is because most children’s films seem cheerful and humorous and the issues I mentioned above seem to be treated in a lighthearted or maudlin manner, if at all; perhaps I’m not giving other children’s films enough credit, but I feel like The Pagemaster and the first Land Before Time are rare films. I don’t think all children’s films need to be serious, certainly not wholly serious, but I’d like to remind my readers that as children we treated childhood as serious business, no matter how bright and sunny it seems now, and we were never as sweet, innocent, and unerring as the myopically nostalgic would have us believe. In fact, as kids we indulged ourselves in things that seem dark now. Aside from my love of the Goosebumps series, which was like E. C. Comics Lite, I remember playing out vast battles with toys in friends in ways that seem a touch macabre to my present self. I applaud ParaNorman for daring to be serious and dark because I think it portrays a more realistic version of childhood.
However, I don’t mean to steer you wrong with that last paragraph. The film is also quite funny, as in made me chuckle or even laugh aloud. It relies on visual gags primarily, some of which are placed in the background and unlikely to be picked up on by kids. I was particularly amused by a neon sign in the background called Witchy Wieners, advertising for some hot dog place, whose ‘W’ blinked out not long before the camera panned past it; the sign and part of the town had been destroyed, so there was a reason for that to happen, but it still tickled me to think that they had slipped that into this movie; I’m not an oversensitive, media-watchdog parent, or even a parent at all, so that subtle joke didn’t bother me a bit. The movie also plays with some black humor, particularly involving the dead – ghosts or zombies – which would have appealed to me as a child as much as it appeals to me now.
ParaNorman is a great kids movie that I would recommend to adults and older children; the serious parts might bore the younger ones and a few earnestly creepy sequences might scare them as well. The film is beautifully animated and fans of stop motion movies in the vein of Coraline or Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas and Corpse Bride will certainly appreciate this movie. It’s a daring endeavor for putting zombies in a kid’s movie and dealing with heavy issues, but it succeeds in telling a new story about zombies, which is extremely difficult in a market oversaturated with zombies, and in rendering a realistic vision of childhood, though it takes place in a fantastical world; it’s daring for revealing one of the adult characters is gay toward the end of the movie, even if it’s in such an offhand manner that few could take offense. It’s a shame this movie hasn’t done better at the box office, but I’m hoping this review will give it some of the credit it deserves and that you will give this movie a chance.