UPDATED: I added some additional thoughts below.
THIS REVIEW CONTAINS SPOILERS
Boy what a disappointment this film was, I’m sorry to say. Paranorman has its moments of humor, and an is definitely impressive on every visual aspect of filmmaking. But for a film that tries to point out how different it is from other animated features, there’s nothing this story does to challenge your expectations. The candy bar may come in a different wrapper, but it ultimately tastes the same.
Where this movie really falls apart is in its third act, when we’re finally introduced to the main antagonist…a witch, who is really the spirit of a little girl. I have several problems with how this played out. First of all, the villain is introduced way too late in the game. We see many scenes in the second act where the main characters are being chased by zombies, and we know there’s a spirit of a witches curse that raises them. But since the witch is a faceless entity up until this point, there’s no underlying tension to any of those scenes. There’s the scene where Norman and all the living characters end up in the Town Hall Library after being chased by zombies for 20 minutes. But I didn’t feel anything regarding the bigger threat. The zombies made for some amusing comedy, but the overall threat just felt arbitrary.
When we do find out the witches entity behind everything is really a little girl…well, all it did was leave me confused and wanting to ask more questions. Like for example…why a little girl? Why was she so powerful? Where did she get this kind of power? If she’s the same as Norman in that she can also see spirits, does Norman have the same kind of magic powers that she has to raise the dead? It’s never explained. There wasn’t enough backstory to support why the little girl could do the things that she did. We get no real history about who she really was, which I understand is the point in the beginning…but when we do find out who she is late in the game, the lack of information on her is not in service to the truth of her character. Instead she’s reduced as a character used only so Norman can deliver the films message as opposed to her being treated as a real person. It may sound like I’m reaching in asking questions about where the girl came from… but in having these lack of answers, I felt it only served to meet the contrived needs of the films message.
And yes, I think the films whole message about tolerance is totally forced and contrived. A part of its contrived nature is the lack of information we get regarding the history of the girl, but at the end, we see the zombie of the judge who sentenced the girl to death as a witch feeling apologetic, because he should have learned to have been more tolerant of others who are different. Well, excuse me, but the judge is a spirit from the 17th century where the ideas of tolerance in the 21st century didn’t exist. He had the little girl killed because he thought she was a witch…so he could PROTECT HIS PEOPLE. And lets face it, if the little girl had the kind of power she did as a dead person when she was alive, who would fucking blame him for having her killed? It was a different time. There were no witch pride parades. People lived in fear of witches. He is not at fault for acting the way he did. What we have instead are the filmmakers imposing 21st century ideals on another time period when messages about tolerance for those who are different from us were just not possible. The actions of those people from the past may have been wrong then, but to judge them now when in their time those people were just living up to their ideals and religious beliefs, they certainly didn’t think they were wrong. It’s not their fault. Part of having tolerance is understanding where the other person is coming from as well. You can’t blame people for acting the way they did towards black people before the civil rights movement, just as you can’t blame those who burned witches at the stake out in earlier centuries because their intolerance was born out of a lack of understanding. That’s the kind of message this film should have shared. Not to just force everyone to see things the way you do, but to still understand where the other person is coming from. Because intolerance is a learned behavior. Its not always the other persons fault for not understanding. The message of Paranorman was totally preachy and misguided.
What does Norman really learn about himself in the film? He doesn’t really find inner strength in the same way the boy in The Sixth Sense does. In the Sixth Sense, the boy becomes a hero because he learns not to be afraid of his powers but to use them to help other spirits in need. It doesn’t matter what other people think of him, he’s found a sense of purpose in life and becomes a hero as a result. Norman’s whole journey only seems to be about getting other people to like him and tolerate him. And how did this happen for him? A big supernatural event conveniently drops into his town so he can save everyone and become a hero in the eyes of everyone else. Now everyone likes him. Umm, I’m sorry to say, I don’t think most kids growing up have that kind of advantage. Norman doesn’t really learn anything…all he does is make preachy speeches at convenient times, so he tells everyone that he’s right and everyone else is wrong. That’s not the way to approach it. There’s always going to be someone intolerant of your own beliefs. But being tolerant still means having respect and understanding for the other person as well, not just forcing them to change their belief system so they’ll be tolerant of you. It doesn’t matter what those people think anyway. but as long as they’re not hurting or killing anyone, they have just as much right to feel the way they do as you do about yourself. That doesn’t mean they won’t come around eventually.
As for the visuals, a lot of it was striking, but I had problems with the character animation in that sometimes the characters felt too smooth and over-animated. Its fine when animators can really show off their technique, but I think what happens with that is that you can lose sight of who the character is. The timing could have been sharper, but there were some scenes where they pulled it off pretty well. My favorite character was probably Alvin, bully, who I thought had all of the best moments.
Overall however, this film was just lacking, and still managed to fit in most of the common animated film cliches. Paranorman’s not a bad film, but its got more problems than its willing to admit.