ParaNorman posterThis movie is stupid. Worse than stupid, it is probably the most retched piece of filmth I have seen in a long time (and I have seen some doozies). It offends on all fronts. It’s badly written and badly directed. On top of that, the story is just plain stupid and it insults anyone who knows something about history (admittedly a minority). And finally, it perpetuates certain misconceptions that are very dangerous and damaging.

The movie opens with Norman sitting on the floor, watching a movie, while he talks to his grandma. Then his father enters the room and tells him to take out the garbage. Norman walks into the kitchen, and we meet his parents and teenage sister, Courtney. We immediately notice one thing: everyone in this family is butt-ugly. Both the mother, Sandra, and Courtney have hips in different time zones, Perry’s (the dad) gut fills up the room, and all their faces appear to have some deformity. Norman tells Perry that Grandma is requesting he turn up the heat, and we get the big surprise: Grandma is dead. Norman has the ability to see and talk to ghosts. (Why does a ghost

The ghost of Norman's mother, who's head was tragically crushed ... what? She's one of the living characters? Yikes.

The ghost of Norman’s mother, who’s head was tragically crushed … what? She’s one of the living characters? Yikes.

need the heat turned up?) So of course, his family encourages him to mourn the loss of his grandma in his own way, and gently directs him to some more constructive occupation of his time. No, I’m kidding. They’re total dicks to him and call him a freak.

As the movie goes on we see that everyone in town (Blythe Hollow, apparently someplace in Massachusetts) is the same way. There’s not a single attractive OR likable character in this whole movie. To be sure, Hollywood deserves criticism for being obsessed with appearance and filling its movies with impossibly beautiful people, but this movie goes to the opposite extreme. If they didn’t care how their movie looked, why didn’t they make it live action? Give some much-needed work to all the aspiring actors who don’t meet the usual standards of perfection? Almost every character looks like something I’ve seen dangling from a Q-tip, and has a voice to match. It makes the whole movie downright painful to look at and listen to, even before the dead start crawling out of their graves. Directors Chris Butler and Sam Fell seem to have a particular obsession with women with huge butts. One of the most (sigh) memorable scenes in the movie is of a black, female cop on a motorcycle, using her butt to force a van off the road.

Most of the first act revolves around Norman getting picked on by everyone in the world. We sit through a lot of bad dialogue and toilet humor, all delivered with painful awkwardness. Most of the scenes open with a close-up on the face of some hideous grown-up we are supposed to hate. Norman eventually learns from the ghost of his uncle that he is supposed to use his gift to avert a super-natural catastrophe. A young girl was hanged as a witch in 1712 in Blythe Hollow and at midnight that night, her ghost is going to wake up and reek a terrible vengeance upon the town. What is she going to do? Spread a plague? Set the town on fire? Nope. She’s going to raise the bodies of the six witnesses and judge who convicted her. And then … well, we never really get any explanation of why this is such a big deal. The zombies don’t really do anything but stagger around and moan for the whole movie. It’s about like a Scooby Doo cartoon; it’s all about running from the zombies, but there’s never any indication of what will happen if the zombies catch us. We’re just supposed to run because … they’re scary because … the script says so. Even if we grant that the zombies will perpetrate some standard zombie fare, the mention of which is omitted from a PG movie, we’re talking about seven dilapidated corpses versus the world. What’s the big threat? Sure there might be some casualties, but there’s not a single character in this movie I’d lament being rid of.

scooby doo

If you squint your eyes, you literally can’t tell this isn’t Scooby Doo.

And in fact, when Norman is finally cornered by the zombies, they don’t try to eat him but rather speak to him, asking him to read from a certain book, which will effectively send them back to the grave. This is supposed to be a big moment where we realize the zombies, now repentant for killing the girl, aren’t dangerous, after which Norman comes to their defense and berates a torch-bearing mob for being fearful and reactionary. But if the zombies are good guys, how do they serve the witch’s purpose of revenge?

As for the witch, a word needs to be said about the portrayals in popular culture of Puritan life and thought, and of so-called “witch hunts” (unlike a lot of mainstream movies that exploit the stereotype, this one actually accuses the Puritans by name). Unfortunately I don’t have the time or the space here to give a full treatment of Puritan history. It will have to suffice to say that, unless you have done serious independent research on the subject, you should forget everything you think you know about the Puritans, as they are probably the most unfairly maligned group of people in history. They possessed a truly rare understanding of the world and of human nature that allowed those that came to this continent to create stable and sustainable societies with very few resources. They were passionate about education and were one of the first groups to require by law that all children be literate. They eventually founded a number of the most venerated colleges in America, including Harvard. Alexis de Tocqueville would later write that Puritanism was the very thing that provided a firm foundation for democracy.

I bring this up because popular culture, when it mentions the Puritans, always tries to get us to laugh at them as superstitious nincompoops, and hate them as religious nuts whose zeal gave way to atrocities, the symbol of which in movies is usually an exaggerated version of the infamous Salem Witch Trials. But here’s the thing: in popular entertainment, they are always real witches. How many movies try to get us to believe that witches are real, and can do so many cool (if terrible) things? Movies like Sleepy Hollow, The Blair Witch Project, or this one always want us to scoff at the simple mindedness of colonial peasants, but their witches always turn out to be real witches, whose powers are indeed a great danger to everyone around them. In which case, why shouldn’t they be outlawed and eliminated?

The reaction of the audience, upon realizing they paid to watch ParaNorman.

The reaction of the audience, upon realizing they paid to watch ParaNorman.

Anyway, we get a cheesy climax, where Norman confronts the witch and she turns the landscape into a really blasé field of yellow smoke and floating islands that was probably easy and cheep to animate. He’s able to get her to stop by, I don’t know, being nice to her or something. The various dead characters all go back to their graves and the living get various trite comeuppances, good and bad, according to their sympatheticness.

I tried to find something good to say about this movie, I really did. I suppose the animation is okay, especially considering that they did it with models. In this age of computers, that deserves a nod just for being there. I think I did laugh at a line once or twice, maybe three times. But I couldn’t tell you now what the funny lines were, because the memory is buried under two hours of agony and regret of my wasted time and money (I only paid $1.28, but the movie sucked so much I’m still depressed about it). At least I can spare you from repeating my mistake. You owe me one.

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