The sense of loneliness and isolation common to puberty is here given actual manifest form, in the paranormal ability Norman has to see and speak with ghosts. It literally separates him from those around him, who see it either as something for which to mock him or a bad habit he needs to grow out of. No one really believes he can do it, which only adds to his frustration. When he’s by himself, it’s a normal, even somewhat comforting thing (it allows him a continued relationship with his deceased grandmother, for instance). But as soon as he tries to let other people in on his secret, to be who he really is, he’s at best ignored and at worst ridiculed. The only person who accepts Norman at his word is Neil, a classmate who’s every bit as picked on as Norman, only for a much more tangible reason: his weight. But Neil seems oddly at peace with his lot in life, wisely realizing the fault lies with those who tease him, not in himself. As Neil tells him, “If you were bigger and stupid, you’d be a bully too.” It’s Neil’s determined if sometimes over-eager friendship that helps Norman become a little more at ease with himself, especially in a charming scene where Neil accepts Norman’s ability to talk to ghosts as the most normal thing in the world, especially since it’ll let him play with his dead dog one more time. It’s the first bit of normal acceptance Norman gets in the film (from someone alive, at least), and it’s an important step in his growth.
There’s also the acceptance of adult responsibility. For Norman discovers that it’s fallen to him to continue the ritual that keeps the witch’s curse at bay. Every year, on the anniversary of her death 300 years ago, someone has to read from a mysterious book, pacifying the witch for another year. At first, Norman fails in this duty, resulting in the bodies of the townsfolk who condemned the witch rising from their graves, seemingly bent on destroying the town. But while all the adults in the town seem to forget they’re adults and go mad with paranoid fear, it’s Norman who, via the grown-up methods of talking and listening, discerns their true purpose. The very thing that has made him an outsider to the town has become the one thing that can save it.
For the witch has been unleashed, and her power is growing. Norman remains stymied by just what he’s supposed to do, as his repeated attempts to read from the book prove fruitless. It contains nothing but fairy tales, which seem to have no effect on the witch. Again though, Norman turns away from sheer brute force and blind panic and attempts to understand just what happened to the witch, discovering that she was only a little girl close to his age when she was killed, someone who, like Norman, was feared and shunned for being different. The fairy tales were to put her spirit to sleep, as one would try to tuck a child in to bed at night. Only Norman once again displays the wisdom of adulthood and realizes that this is merely a temporary solution to the problem. He puts aside the book and its childish stories and talks to the witch as a person, trying to understand her, to listen to her, to talk to her honestly. Confronted not with fear or scolding but with actual compassion, the witch’s spirit is finally put to rest. A display of maturity by one child has eased the suffering of another.
In the end, Norman’s faith in his ability is rewarded by acceptance. The bully who tormented now brags of knowing him. He has the gratitude of the town and, what’s more, the respect and love of his family. He’s come through a turbulent time of change as a more mature, more confident person. He’s still got a lot to learn, but he knows he can learn it, and has friends and family fully by his side to help him. Even the ones who aren’t still alive.
It’s that thematic and emotional depth that elevate ParaNorman from being simply a fun horror movie for kids to being a classic film that deserves to be brought out every Halloween. The scares are of the gentle, fun house variety, the kind most of the kids in my audience bragged about being not that scared by once the film was over and the lights had safely come up. The character designs are wonderfully quirky, especially the zombies, who are invested with so much personality for a bunch of characters who can’t communicate aside from assorted moans and groans. A lot of that is due to the skill of the Laika crew. Their work here is superb, particularly in Norman’s final confrontation with the young witch, a dazzling display of light and darkness, solidity and ethereality. There’s so much of that balance here, between light and dark, between mature depth and childlike fun, between scary and funny. In the end, it’s just a tremendously satisfying film that earns its emotion.
On a day where I first saw the permanent adolescence on display in The Expendables 2, the surprising maturity of ParaNorman was a revelation. It’s a film that deftly equates the fictional scares of ghosts and zombies with the very real scares of leaving childhood. And tells us that, with patience and understanding, neither scares have to be all that frightening after all.