Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Think of the Children! Tuesday: ParaNorman and Communication


Ah Halloween. That lovely time of year when tumblr goes freaking nuts (not that it's really the paragon of sanity the rest of the year), candy goes up in price, and I have an excuse to dress up like a goddess or a princess or something. It's also the perfect time of year to finally get around to reviewing a few cult classics. Like, say, ParaNorman, which hasn't been out for that long (since 2012) but has already achieved a sort of immortality. Probably because while it's not quite old enough to be a classic, it does reference a lot of the old Roger Corman movies. A fact that makes me pretty happy, not gonna lie.

So ParaNorman is a pretty standard kids' movie in terms of theme and character arc. It's about a little boy, Norman Babcock (Kodi Smit-McPhee) who doesn't fit in and feels like no one ever listens to him, not even his family. To make matters worse, he's sort of the town freak. But when a tragedy/freak event shakes the town, they come to see that Norman and his "freakiness" is the only thing that can save him. And then he saves the day by being kind, and gentle, and a good listener.

In broad strokes this isn't really the kind of story that's remaking the wheel. I mean, it's good, don't get me wrong. I am all for stories about little boys who save the world by being good listeners. But it's not super new and exciting. What sets ParaNorman apart isn't the arc or the theme. It's the details. The details of this plot are pretty freaking great. And very different.

Norman is a little boy who doesn't fit in. That's definitely true. What's cool is why he doesn't fit in: Norman sees ghosts. Lots of ghosts. Ghosts everywhere. From his grandmother's ghost (Elaine Stritch) sitting in the living room to long dead ghosts who yell at him on his walk to school, Norman sees the dead. And he knows that makes him weird, but what's he supposed to do? Not see them? Act like he doesn't see them? That would be rude, and dishonest.

He doesn't really have any friends at school, either. He's constantly picked on by the local bully, Alvin (Christopher Mintz-Plasse), and can't seem to do anything right. But his luck turns when he is befriended by another outcast, the adorably chubby and goodnatured Neil (Tucker Albrizzi). Even at home Norman can't quite fit in. His father (Jeff Garlin) finds his ability to talk to ghosts weird and a cry for help, while his mother (Leslie Mann) is just sort of vaguely not helpful, and his sister Courtney (Anna Kendrick) thinks her little brothers is just the worst.

Into all of this turmoil and prepubescent angst comes, of course, plot. Right before Halloween, which is a big deal in the fictional town of Blithe Hollow*, Norman's uncle, Mr. Prendergast (John Goodman) comes to him with anxious news. It's now been three hundred years since the good people of Blithe Hollow killed the evil witch that was plaguing them, and it's been three hundred years since her curse (that seven townspeople be turned into zombies) was cast. If Norman doesn't manage to stop it, then the witch will rise and the town will fall!

Oh no!

Norman is at first not super believing of his uncle's message, but when said uncle dies of a heart attack right before the witch is supposed to rise, Norman figures he might as well try to stop the apocalypse. But since things are never as easy as they seem in movies, the film has him go on a hilarious and madcap adventure with his new friend Neil, Neil's older brother Mitch (Casey Affleck), Norman's sister Courtney, and the town bully Alvin. Hijinks ensue.

Now I really don't want to spoil the actual plot of the movie (I've really only brought us into the early second act here), but suffice to say that the movie doesn't really do what you're expecting it to. It turns out that the witch's curse really isn't so much a mean thing as it is a bid for understanding. And the original charges against her? Just scared townspeople who thought they were doing the right thing.

In the end, Norman doesn't fight anyone or defeat anyone or even really save the town. Mostly what happens is that Norman teaches the townspeople how to be brave. Because "It's okay to be scared. But you can't let fear change who you are." And there's something so inherently lovable about a movie where the zombies have more to fear from us than we do from them.

The heart of this movie, it's bread and butter, is communication. Specifically, the communication that really needs to happen between family members and friends and loved ones. The movie makes it very clear. We have got to listen to each other if we want to live in a community that doesn't suck. If you want a good relationship, if you want a good life, you have to listen.

It demonstrates this by giving us a series of relationships that are really pretty broken. Norman is ostracized at school, sure, but you get the impression that he could deal with that just fine if he were really emotionally supported at home. He isn't. His father thinks that this whole seeing ghosts thing is a side effect of his grief over his grandmother's death, and believes that all Norman needs to do is man up and get over it. He did, and he's fine.

His mother, meanwhile, is of more or less the same opinion but in a quieter and more emotionally comforting way. She thinks that Norman is a special boy, but not really that he sees ghosts. And while she doesn't insist, as his father does, that he cut this crap out, she does suggest that he try being a little less conspicuous. It'd be easier on him if he didn't stand out so much, after all. She's nice, but she's not the kind of champion that Norman feels like he needs.

And Courtney, well, she mostly doesn't care at all what Norman's going through. She's in high school, she's a cheerleader, and the last thing she needs is some weird little brother bringing her down. Really she doesn't need a weird little brother at all. She's going to rule this town, and she'd just prefer it if people didn't know she and Norman were related.

The only person that Norman can really talk to is his dead grandmother. It's hard on him. And at the beginning of the movie it's very hard to like any of Norman's family at all. But as the film goes on and we see more of them and their motivations, it actually becomes clear that Norman's father isn't great at dealing with emotions, but he does love his son. He's just worried about what other people will do to Norman. His mother is compassionate and kind, but not really sure what advice she should give her son. And Courtney? She's kind of surprised by the awesome kid that Norman turns out to be, and by the end of the movie, she's his staunchest defender.

All that really needed to change was for Norman's family to see the world through his eyes for a day. They needed to see not just that he really is seeing the dead and they should believe him, but also that it's not a bad or scary thing he should stop or try to kill about himself. It's part of who he is, and it's okay. The third act of the movie starts when Norman's parents decide, you know what, they're going to listen to what their son has to say. Even if no one else will.

This isn't really the sort of stuff that feels profound to write about, or that seems earth-shattering in a movie. And to a large extent, it's not. Healthy communication is not the sort of thing that gets sonnets written about it. It's a really easy problem to identify. What makes this movie important, though, is that it actually shows this obvious problem being solved. Not just solved for a day, but solved for good. The movie makes it clear that communication is necessary for any good relationship or community. And when it becomes clear how much fear has clouded communication up to this point, the town makes a concerted effort to be better at it. Norman's family makes a definitive effort to be better.

That's what makes ParaNorman such a good movie. It's not the zombie horror pastiche or the adorable set dressing, or even the really impressive stop motion animation, but it's the fact that this story is about people learning to listen to each other, and how much that can transform a life. No, it's not groundbreaking news. Learning to communicate better is a really obvious step. But it's not easy. It takes effort. And it's really good to see a movie for children acknowledging that.

Plus, it's always valuable to see a children's movie that presents problematic family dynamics, a problematic parental relationship, and then explains how to heal it. The movie never gets all after school special on you, but it does make it clear that sometimes our families aren't the places where we feel safe. And then it shows how to make a safe space for yourself. It means demanding that people hear your voice, and listening to what they have to say too.

It's not rocket science. But that doesn't mean it isn't worth doing.

Horrified zombies are the best zombies.
*For the record, it wasn't hard to figure out what real life town Blithe Hollow is based on. I mention this because there's really only one New England town that's made its fortune by capitalizing on the traumatic witch trials it endured a couple centuries ago. That's right, Salem, Massachusetts. I have such fond memories of visiting the animatronic Salem Witch Trial Museum on field trips. Which is totally a thing that we did. I grew up twenty minutes away. Just saying.

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