I worry for ParaNorman. Judging by the buzz, it sounds like you may have little interest in seeing ParaNorman. If that's your mindset -- if you think this movie is just for kids -- then I am writing this directly to you. And, trust, me, I get it; I used to feel the same way about ParaNorman ... but I was wrong.
It's rare that I get blindsided by a movie, at least in this regard. Sure, all too often, there are movies fail to deliver on my great hopes for them. It happens. Life is short; we all move on. But then here comes ParaNorman, a movie that I, regrettably, had negative preconceived notions about. Not that it wouldn't be good -- but more that, based on the marketing campaign, I was under the impression that I wasn't the target audience. In other words: I thought this was going to be yet another kids movie with just enough popular culture references to make adults happy. You know, the kind of movie that every hack critic will declare, "Kids will love it," then adding the kicker, "But there's something in there for the parents, too." (Other than Rango, this pretty much describes every animated film to come out in the past five years.)
Regardless, as it turns out, ParaNorman is one of my favorite movies of the year.
Now, I'm not insisting that just because I happen to like ParaNorman that you should rush to your local theater this weekend. My point in writing this is not so much a review but, instead, an observation that ParaNorman wound up being completely different than my expectations. Since it's my job to pay attention to movies, I can only assume that your expectations might be similar to mine. I am hoping to change those expectations.
ParaNorman -- presented in quite dazzling (dazzling!) stop-motion animation -- is the story of Norman Babcock, a young boy who has the ability to speak with the dead. That much you probably know. But, boy, this movie is dark. Really dark. The backstory of the film focuses on a witch who returns to the town of Blithe Hollow to "wake the dead" (zombies!), which will, seemingly, cause much havoc. Norman is then enticed to use his ability to talk with the witch in order to save the town. Yeah, but here's the part you don't know:
(Warning, this next paragraph delves into the outer realm of spoilers. Nothing that gives away the ending, but includes plot points not fully revealed until the third act.)
The witch, at one point, was a young girl who was sentenced to death by hanging for witchcraft. The zombies brought back to life were the people of the town who condemned her to die. (See: it is dark.) This sets up a surprising reversal of roles and a surreal, emotionally charged third act that is unlike anything I've ever seen in something pretending to be a movie marketed to children. Not to mention that there's an openly gay character in the main cast. (Which is another reason that ParaNorman is remarkable.)
Sadly, ParaNorman is being released in the doldrums of mid-August. (At this point, I wish August could just be renamed "Doldrum.") It's a safe bet that the studio releasing ParaNorman, Focus Features, would rather not go head-to-head this fall against the more high profile Hotel Transylvania or Frankenweenie. But, sadly, its release date comes with a stigma, too. So, yes, that gives us two stigmas: "Kids movie" and "lousy release date." That's a lot for a movie even as good as ParaNorman to overcome.
Not since Rango have I felt quite this way about a film. A film that just caught me completely off-guard, in a positive way, between what I thought it would be and what it turned out to be. (For the record: Rango is the better film -- but doesn't have a sustained scene that approaches the final act of ParaNorman.) Thankfully, Rango was recognized for its merits -- eventually winning an Oscar for its trouble.
My gut feeling is that ParaNorman will come and go with little fanfare. Perhaps word of mouth can sustain its presence. Regardless, with all the schlock we've been force fed over the last three months (OK, and a couple of good movies, too) it pisses me off to watch a worthy wide release get so little attention. I mean, I dare you to watch the last 15 minutes of ParaNorman and not have an emotional reaction. The problem is, you'll probably never see those last 15 minutes, and that's a shame.
Mike Ryan is senior entertainment writer for The Huffington Post. His favorite movie of 2011 is Rango. You can contact Mike Ryan directly on Twitter.
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