ParaNorman (2012) by Sam Fell and Chris Butler
Retro Review by Zach Dennis
“Sometimes when people get scared, they say and do terrible things. I think you got so scared that you forgot who you are. But I don't think you're a witch. Not really.”
We don’t need to make anything great, feel anything, or be with anyone. We just need some empathy.
In a year filled with chaos, sadness, and regret, there is something resoundingly ambitious about showing empathy to one another and being able to look past our ideological differences and make good for the people around us. The plot of ParaNorman seems better suited for 2016 than its actual release in 2012, but that is because it harps on a much needed breath of clarity in a world marked by shootings, tyrannical politics, and targeted aggression.
Much more than its classic horror and zombie genre roots, the second feature film by the animation studio, LAIKA, is about coming to terms with our faults, avoiding a repeat of the past, and finding harmony in moving past issues that hold us back.
Norman (voiced by Kodi Smit-McPhee) is no stranger to backlash. His gift of being able to see and speak with the dead isolates him from everyone — even his family. “Why can’t you just be normal??” is what his father (Jeff Garlin) and sister (Anna Kendrick) shriek at him on a daily basis, but Norman doesn’t let it deter him — he continues to speak and see.
At school, the situation doesn’t improve. The sea of students part as if reenacting biblical text when he arrives at the front door and he spends a few seconds at his locker to pull out a spray bottle and rag to wipe off “FREAK," which is written on his locker. The school bully, Alvin (Christopher Mintz-Plasse), slams a fly against the locker and tells Norman to talk to that next.
The only friend Norman can count on is Neil (Tucker Albrizzi), another outsider who is wiping down “FATTY” from his locker. Neil doesn’t see Norman as a freak of nature for his "powers," instead, he sees him as someone gifted and remarkable. So it isn’t shocking when he goes after Norman, who leaves his home to fight off a centuries-old witch that haunts the town once a year in penance for the village’s leaders executing her under the suspicion of witchcraft.
But the witch really isn’t a witch. She is actually a young girl named Aggie (Jodelle Ferland), who shares the same gift as Norman and was ostracized for it in the 18th century. As Norman attempts to reach her in the movie’s final moments, she exclaims that these men and women are getting what they deserved for what they did to her. She isn’t a monster, but just a little girl who is afraid and wants to be re-united with her mother.
The scope of ParaNorman widens a little over halfway through the film when Norman is struck from the top of the Town Hall by Aggie and visits her sentencing. As he awakens, he sees the drooping eyes of the judge (Bernard Hill). He doesn’t feel vindicated for ridding his village of this menace — he feels guilty and is tortured for it.
He says that he thought he was doing what was right. In the moment, it seemed logical to condemn this girl for something they couldn’t comprehend rather than trying to come to an understanding about it. Directors Sam Fell and Chris Butler (who also co-wrote the script) capture the judge’s shame again as Norman tells the angry mob outside the Town Hall about their indiscretion. He has to stop them because they’re about to make the same choice again, this time when the now-burning Town Hall’s front doors open and the zombie with Norman emerge only to have a police officer’s pistol pointed in his face.
This moment doesn’t last long, but there is something haunting about that quick draw. The officer is ready to unload on the zombies and is only stopped by Norman, putting himself in front of the barrel to save these people who are both dead and virtually unknown to him. They don’t deserve to keep walking the Earth after the act they committed many years ago, but he knows that blowing them away with a firearm won’t change the past. It never does.
There’s something moving about the moments that occur after this scene. The town’s people come to terms with what type of act they were about to commit and the fear of repeating history stops them. They aren’t accepting of the zombies, and they’re still showing fear, but they also know that further action won’t fix the problem at hand.
This moves into the film’s most moving scene (and easily the best sequence in LAIKA's short history), which is when Norman heads into the woods to confront Aggie and attempts to bring this night of terror to an end. The rising guitar tones coupled with piano melodies from Jon Brion’s score hum alongside the often violent yellow visuals in this final sequences creating this aura of absolute struggle and seclusion.
It radiates with an almost mythic sense of battle and duty. The mountain must be climbed and we don’t know if someone is coming down.
The message in the battle resonates more because Norman is fighting something he should side with Aggie on. He knows that she is correct and that people are wrong to do and say horrible things to others, but he also knows that she is as wrong as they are. She is a bully just the same.
The things that hurt both of them weren't coming from malice, but from a lack of knowledge and fear. These two factors dictate a lot of our actions, which leads to wrong choices being made.
There is no satisfaction in getting back at someone and nothing will change what happened in the past. The best we can do is move forward and do our best to keep it from happening again and learn from our past mistakes. Aggie can’t be brought back to life, The Judge can’t change the decision he made, and Norman can’t fix his gifts and how people perceive it, but we can learn from each of these moments and try to let the next Aggie or Norman have a better experience.
ParaNorman shows the rich depths of both animation and storytelling, and the messages that can be conveyed through similar tales. We can disagree with others, see them as different, or live contrasting lives, but we should never lack humanity and empathy. In dark times more than ever, an outstretched hand and a simple word of encouragement can move more than anything physical.
Sadly, we have to dig into a animated movie filled with puppets and put together by computers to grasp the full understanding of this real-life lesson.