I really wanted to like ParaNorman, which promised to be a classic among the all-ages animated films that have come out in recent years. They overlay heartwarming stories for the child in all of us with a web of sophisticated details aimed at the grownups. The film starts well, with its endearing underdog for a hero, and its darkly nuanced setting: a recession-beleaguered town in New England.
Eleven-year-old Norman sees dead people, who seem to be much more genuine than his steadfastly conventional family. These characters, in all their blandness, are clearly crazy, in a way we can’t help but recognize from our own lives. So, too, are Norman’s schoolmates and teachers, who don’t take well to his “talent.”
So far so good: the film tells us that the outsiders and freaks of society are the real sane ones. But it goes on to deliver another – as far as I’m concerned – really offensive message, all the more troublesome for being couched in such an inviting package.
Here – spoiler alert in more ways than one – is the story. Norman’s ability to talk with the dead is shared by his uncle Prenderghast, a pill-popping outcast whom everyone — including Norman — fears. His dying request is is that Norman carry on the tradition which made Prenderghast himself suffer so much. His job will be to keep at bay something called “the witch’s curse” which hangs over the town. This makes sense to Norman, as images of burning buildings and various types of carnage increasingly haunt him.
The witch’s curses started in the 1700s when an eleven-year-old girl, Agatha Prenderghast, was hanged for her own ability to speak to the dead. But the resourceful tyke managed to whip up some supernatural support. All seven of her accusers died terrible deaths and continue to haunt the town as zombies in the present day. It’s up to weird uncle, and now Norman, to read to Agatha`s ghost from a book of fairy tales, send her to sleep for another year and forestall the town’s destruction.
There follow all kind of hijinx involving high speed chases with zombies, the conversion of the town bully, Norman’s vapid cheerleader sister and a car-obsessed jock to the cause, and a series of confrontations between Norman and a mob of vigilantes, Norman and the zombies, and then Norman and the witch herself.
Here’s what Norman finds out: the judges are sorry. They’re nice zombies after all, but can’t rest in peace because Agatha/witch is still pissed. She appears as an enormous head in the sky emanating ribbons of fire which culminate in menacing, all-powerful hands. She can burn things up and generate storms. When Norman confronts her, she becomes a kind of iluminated tree creature, whose innocent and pretty little face lights up with ghostly, white hot rage.
She is — in short — awesome.
But not for long.
Here’s what the audience finds out: it’s not the egregious crime against humanity causing all these problems, but stubborn Agatha`s refusal to kiss and make up. We don’t see the judges being confronted with the consequences of their actions. We don’t see the suffering of Agatha`s familiy, or what Agatha herself went through awaiting and enduring being hanged. The witch-head is pretty damned scary and there are rotting zombie body parts being thrown around, but the reality of the crime is glossed over. All we know is the last moment before she got taken away, Agatha was happy with her mother. Forgetting her childlike innocence – and not being murdered — has made her into a destructive force of nature.
So Norman approaches awesome, fierce Agatha who isn’t – quite understandably as far as I’m concerned – keen to be touched. He confronts her in an accusatory way, and she flares, as if in pain. Gradually her light dwindles, she turns into a nice little girl who does what nice girls are supposed to do, I guess. She disappears.
Here`s what I really, really don`t understand. Why load the action of the movie down with an arch and overly complicated backstory when there’s a better and more vibrant one just waiting to be plucked? Suppose there were something bad going on in the town, still? We all know that never happens any more, and even bullies are really nice underneath, but it’s just a movie. Suppose there was a crime being committed against a little girl in the present day? Suppose Agatha couldn’t rest — not because she was being a bad sport — but because she wanted to protect another endangered child? Suppose Norman were charged with uncovering the problem instead of shutting the victim up?
My suggested plot might scare children. But would it make them feel any safer to believe they could be killed by people in positions of trust, that this would be fully legal, and they’d cause centuries of destruction to themselves and their famlies if they demanded justice?
Maybe we would all — not just feel — but BE safer in a world where people believed injured girls had the power to fight back.