Note: ParaNorman does not arrive in theaters until August 17.
We’re only into August, and already this has been a spectacular year for animation. Parents and their children have powered Pixar’s Brave ($223.4 million), Dr. Seuss’ The Lorax ($214 million) and Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted ($210.8 million) to healthy box-office totals. They currently occupy three slots on the top 10 box-office films of 2012… with Ice Age: Continental Drift bringing up the rear.
But “animated” doesn’t always mean “family friendly,” as many of you know. This storytelling medium often can be used by boundary-pushing directors to explore mature topics and darker genres. I’m not talking about Fritz the Cat or Heavy Metal. Titles like Watership Down, Coraline, The Nightmare Before Christmas or most films from Miyazaki’s body of work come to mind.
To that list, I’m going to add the stop-motion-animated ParaNorman
, the latest from Lakia (producers of Coraline
) that pits a unique adolescent against the forces of evil. For many young audience members, ParaNorman
could serve as an introduction to the horror genre. Parents might want a little help in determining if their children are old enough to handle it.
So, let’s figure out when you can watch ParaNorman with your kids.
Green Lights: "The witch’s curse is real, and you’re the one to stop it!"
Let’s start with the positives.
Norman (Kodi Smit-McPhee) becomes the latest in the long line of outcasts and loners we’ve covered in the When Can I Watch column. Norman’s curse allows him to converse with the dead, so he sees gangsters with cement shoes in his neighborhood and holds conversations with his deceased grandmother, who occupies a spot on the family couch. Norman’s ability also means he zones out in school, making him the target of a bully (Christopher Mintz-Plasse), his big sister (Anna Kendrick) and even his disapproving dad (Jeff Garlin).
As is usually the case in stories such as this, something happens to Norman’s sleepy town, however, that requires him to rely on his unique talent, turning his curse into a gift. Like so many of its predecessors, ParaNorman gives parents an opportunity to celebrate with their kids the selfless act of recognizing a skill and applying it. Because Norman’s talent also requires him to confront zombies and a misunderstood witch, the movie also demonstrates the need for outstanding courage in abnormally spooky situations.
ParaNorman directors Sam Fell and Chris Butler have a pretty good sense of when to pull back and not dive fully into the gore and chills of the horror genre… though their third act, which features a confrontation between Norman and the witch, gets decidedly intense. Recently, I interviewed Fell and Butler, and spoke with them about the fact that I watched far too much horror as a kid, and found it cool rather than scary. And yet, I’m protective with my own sons. What a double standard.
“When you are a parent, you have to remember what it was like being a kid,” Fell told me. “You can’t be too sanctimonious. You know your kids are probably up to something on their own.”
“That’s what we were trying to get to with this movie,” Butler added. “At every step of the way, we were trying to shed all of these years of maturity [laughs], and were just trying to remember what it felt like to be 11… what scared you, you know? And what scared you was more likely to be the kid down the block who flushes your head down the toilet every day, rather than zombies on the TV screen.”
Before we get into bullying (again) and some of the scares on-screen in ParaNorman, I want to highlight two other aspects that really elevate this story. We’ve gone out of our way to cover a distinct type of adventure genre in the When Can I Watch column, where kids must rise up and save the day because grown ups are too clueless to even recognize there’s a problem. That theme surfaces in The Goonies and The Monster Squad – two faves of the When Can I Watch column. ParaNorman fits that mold, with Norman and his adorable best friend, Neil (Tucker Albrizzi), recruiting a gaggle of misfits kids to stop a zombie apocalypse and prevent a witch form completing her curse.
To do so, Norman also has to research his town’s history, and I thought this was an angle that’s rarely addressed in cinema (either adolescent cinema, or moviemaking, in general). As Norman reads about his small town’s past, I found myself eager to explore my own neighborhood’s roots with my kids. Not that we expect to unearth any witch curses, but figuring out where we came from always opens the doors to new learning experiences.
Red Flags: "The dead are coming!"
Now, the borderline “iffy” material. Butler and Fell – to their credit – aren’t afraid to scare kids with ParaNorman. They view that process as part of the ride, and with Norman around as a guide to the macabre insanity, they’re hoping that kids won’t be as unnerved by the presence of zombies, ghosts and witches.
And that might be the case. But parents should be aware that ParaNorman is a lot closer in nature to Tim Burton or Henry Selick’s animated efforts – The Corpse Bride, Coraline or The Nightmare Before Christmas – than it is to Pixar’s animated contributions.
Start with the fact that Norman sees ghosts all around him. He’s often confronted by the dead, and even interacts with a deceased – and deranged – uncle (John Goodman) while trying to use a toilet stall. The movie actually comes to life, though, when the dead rise from beyond the grave. That’s when Norman and his team must contend with stalking zombies, detached limbs, an angry witch… some morbid stuff happens in ParaNorman, and if your kids are unfamiliar with horror (even “softcore” scares), you might want to sample this film before taking the whole family.
Ironically, the monsters aren’t the scariest creatures in ParaNorman. The real threat is us. When the zombies make their way into our towns, they’re terrified by the “reality” programming on our televisions and the way we behave in public. Once average citizens learn of the undead intruders, their immediate reaction is one of violence and anger. “Kill ‘em all in the head!” one lady shouts about the creatures in her neighborhood. The last act of ParaNorman is tough.
And though the message that concludes ParaNorman places a nice, neat bow of happiness and serenity on the storyline, there are some terrifying confrontations between Norman and his adversaries that could disturb young viewers thinking they’re buckling in for a cartoon.
And so …
ParaNorman earns a PG rating, but inches close to the PG-13 rating by pushing the envelope in terms of kiddie scares. Its gallows humor and attention to the macabre probably makes it appropriate for kids 10 or 11 and up.
If your kids, for whatever reason, are rabid horror fans and have sampled movies in the genre before, then ParaNorman’s right up their alley. But I’m not sure you’d want to make ParaNorman the first “horror” movie your children see. The movie assumes its audience is at least somewhat comfortable with things that go bump in the night, and quickly gets to what scares us as it tells its story.
As always, if you try ParaNorman with your kids, let me know how it goes.
If you’d like to read previous entries in the "When Can I Watch That With My Kids?" series, click right here. Some of the films covered: Star Wars, Back to the Future, The Goonies, Hugo, The Princess Bride, The Monster Squad and Elf, to name just a few.