Despite the incredible amount of time and effort that goes into its creation, stop-motion animation is often dismissed as being for children. From Aardman Studios classics to the gentle scares of The Nightmare Before Christmas, it’s a charming medium that rarely offers a lot of depth.
ParaNorman, at first glance, looked like just another cute kids' film. Maybe it would be a bit creepy since monsters are involved, but it still seemed like a fun, goofy flick. It’s unlikely viewers anticipated how much – and how well – it would address heavy emotional themes, exploring the complexity of human nature without talking down to kids.
ParaNorman is reminiscent of Monster Squad, with its band of cliched characters fighting monsters with crude humor. There’s certainly a lot of inspiration taken from movies like The Goonies as well. You have the jock, the bully, the popular girl, and the food-loving comic relief.
But while the characters lean into the funnier aspects of their stereotypes, they all serve important roles and are all well-rounded, more like actual people than walking cardboard cutouts. Norman, in particular, is an easy hero to root for. He’s bullied because of his ability to see the dead, but he accepts himself. Despite the ostracization, Norman never appears upset by his medium abilities.
The movie never gets to a point where Norman expresses a desire to be rid of his powers. Instead, he genuinely enjoys talking to ghosts. Not only does he still communicate with his dead grandmother, who understands him in a way the living don’t, but his deceased acquaintances interest him more than the living ones.
Norman is comfortable with himself, but everyone else has a problem with him. You feel for this kid who can’t be comfortable in the presence of another living person; even his own family is scared and frustrated by him. When his classmate, Neil, reaches out to him, you can see Norman is apprehensive. This is a kid who’s been burned so many times that he doesn’t feel he can accept someone’s friendship, even when it’s openly offered.
Norman’s hometown puts significant stock in its history, especially a lurid 17th-century horror story of an evil witch who curses the town after being shunned and executed for her nefarious ways. The twist ParaNorman reveals is a gut punch: Not only is the witch innocent, but she was just a child medium who was murdered because people feared her.
It’s heartbreaking when little Aggie’s spirit tells Norman about being ripped away from her mother. Aggie may have done awful things in her afterlife, but she’s still just a child who perished scared and alone.
One of ParaNorman’s major themes is fear, and what it can do to people if they let it take over and harm those they don’t understand. Back in the 1600s, the fear of a little girl with strange abilities made a town turn against her. Norman’s fellow medium, Uncle Penderghast, was forced to live his life as a recluse and an outcast. And when a horde of zombies is unleashed on the town, an angry mob becomes so terrified they’re ready to blame and murder an 11-year-old boy just because he’s the “town weirdo.”
Even the zombies are only scary on the surface. In reality, they’re repentant and regretful for what they did in life, and are now lost and confused creatures who long to be released from their curse. Said curse only exists because poor Aggie’s ghost has been scared and alone for so long that she takes her frustration out on an entire town. It’s heavy subject matter for kids, but its presentation makes it easy to understand and digest.
ParaNorman accomplishes a film’s most important job — it makes you care. Not just about its hero or the “good guys,” but all of its characters, even the ones you thought were stock villains. By the end of the movie, you realize there are no clear-cut “bad guys” here, just complicated people who reacted badly when presented with frightening situations. It’s a mature look into the complexity of everyday people, and it’s all thanks to some gorgeous animation.