BuyZombie.com. Please check out the final draft of the review here.
Paranorman, made by the same people who made the excellent Coraline and the decent-but-not-great Corpse Bride, is a very interesting film, if for no other reason than it keeps shattering your expectations. Just when you think that you've figured the movie out, it takes a sharp turn and becomes something else entirely. In my experience, it's rare that you run across what is ostensibly a kid's movie that dares to be this smart without losing any of its accessibility.
Paranorman is the story of Norman, a young boy who loves scary horror movies and talks to dead people. He lives in a small New England town with the sole claim to fame that they once had a good old-fashioned Puritan witch-trial, with a real witch that cursed her accusers to come back as the living dead and everything. Pretty much everything in the town is devoted to advertising that fact. The town also has ghosts all over the place. Not fake ghosts advertising the witch, but real ghosts that Norman talks to. In fact, they seem to be the only people to accept Norman for his ability. Naturally, since no one else can see the ghosts, he gets shunned by... everyone. His mother seems to be the only person to even try to understand him, and even she comes off as a bit distant. Then one day, Norman's crazy uncle, who apparently can also see dead people, comes to Norman to tell him that he must carry on the family legacy and keep the spirit of the witch at rest so as to prevent to curse from being fulfilled. Naturally, things don't go quite so well as planned.
This is where things get interesting, not just in the story, but also in how the story is told. You see, the movie can be broken up into three acts, the first act introduces us to Norman, his life, and all of the minor characters. It's surprisingly slow-paced, but that's because it takes its time to flesh out the characters, especially Norman. It shows just how much his life must suck, since he has essentially no corporeal friends and even his own family, for the most part, treats him like a freak. If you went into the movie not knowing anything about it at all, you could almost think it was a re-make of The Sixth Sense, but without the Bruce Willis character.
However, once Norman finally decides that he needs to stop the witch's curse, the movie shifts gears into a strait-up cheesy horror movie. Heck, it's pretty much "baby's first horror movie" during this act. It's presented in a child friendly manner, since there's no real gore, no swearing, etc. But you've still got all the regular horror tropes (like jump scares, an abandoned mansion in the woods, and a car chase where the zombie is clinging to the car rooftop,) and all the regular horror characters (like the protagonist with a supernatural gift, the cheerleader, the jock, the plucky but stupid sidekick, and the bully who turns out to be not so bad when the chips are down.)
Then, once you've finally gotten used to this act, the movie shifts gears again gives you a huge reveal, and suddenly you're in a much deeper movie. Again, it's very kid-accessible, the movie doesn't simplify anything for children, but it starts presenting ideas you wouldn't expect. Fear of the unknown leading to anger and regrettable actions? Forgiving acts that are unforgivable? Puritan witch trials and the fact that people can believe themselves to be doing right while they did wrong? Herd behavior leading to mob violence and rioting? This is heavy stuff, man. One of my favorite scenes in the movie was when the angry mob mistakes the protagonists for the zombies, so they start trying to break into the building the protagonists are barricading. And from the point of view of the protagonists, the scene plays out exactly as if the angry mob of normal humans were in fact a hungry mob of ravenous zombies, trying to break through the barricades, grasping hands and all. Hmmm... I wonder what the movie is trying to tell us the real danger is?
Bottom Line: Paranorman is a great family movie. It's accessible to kids, but it it's smart enough and enjoyable enough that parents, or really any adults, would still get a kick out of it. Plus, if you're into horror movies but you're scared that they'll traumatize your younger children, then this might be a good way to start your kids off without having to worry about them being exposed to anything too scary.
P.S. I watched the movie in 3D because that's what was most convenient for my schedule. I'd say don't bother. Like most 3D versions of movies I've seen, it really didn't add anything to the experience, and having to wear the extra glasses was a little annoying since I already wear glasses. If you really insist of 3D, it's your call, but you're not missing out on anything.