All The Right Elements: Paranorman

World problems. [Spoilers]

[This article will be considerably more ranty and less structured than usual. (if that is even possible at this point)]

What is it with (animation) hollywood writers recently wanting to write grand character pieces without any regard for world building?

They not only want to tell a story but they want the story to have a moral at the end, to convey a message. And thats mostly fine by me as long as they wouldn’t disregard where they put their characters and how that place will influence the outcome of their narrative.

Paranorman is the pinnacle of this failure to integrate world and characters into a coherent whole.

Tonal Inconsistency

For all intents and purposes Paranorman should have been a great movie judging from the trailers, poster and character design.

It looked like a satire of horror films with its exaggerated caricature character-design, collection of horror stereotypes and frequent genre-tropes. However somewhere halfway through the movie, that becomes an afterthought.

It starts well enough with a period-authentic B-movie parody, the camera zooms out and we see Norman, the titular character, watching a horror movie on TV. Then we get the introduction of the tropes that I thought would be parodied.

Norman can see ghosts, including his dead grandma, and his parents don’t believe him of course (more on that later). We also get introduced to the stereotypical small-town setting, and its trope characters: the obnoxious self-centered cheerleader, the sports jock, the stupid fat kid, the geek, and the bully.

So far so good, but as the movie goes on, the stereotypes are not used to comedic effect. Their physique is characteristically exaggerated to underline the stereotypes, their behavior is stereotypical, but beyond that, there isn’t anything done with the characters. A reference does not funny make, Arrow In The Knee, Leeroy Jenkins.

I will mention that I give the movie props for subverting -some- of the tropes at the end, but it feels tacked on and insincere, played for shock-laughs.

It’s no Attack of the Killer Tomatoes (neither the movie or TV series).

The movies subject matter is quite dark but at the same time the presentation is satirical but inconsistent, switching from serious contemplation to corpse slapstick (Norman literally wrestles with the corpse of his dead uncle for 5 minutes, not a zombie, his corpse, his dead lifeless body).

At the same time, the movie also manages to undermine its dark tone by treating death casually, with no serious consequences.

It is pretty early established that dead people go either to heaven or become ghosts and that their eternal soul lives on. Norman, knowing this is true since he can talk and see the dead, should not be afraid of anything. There isn’t a serious consequence for being killed, there isn’t death as the end of the road, just as a small bump. The ghosts he encounters are all considerably friendly even cheery without regret or pain about being a ghost. Ghosts in the movie are never under any threat.

There is no mention of hell or purgatory either.

So conversely, the viewer also doesn’t really care about the fate of the town or the characters. If you got eaten by zombies, so what, you pass on to eternal bliss or become a ghost.

Compare this to movies like The Frighteners, where being a ghost is shown to be an unpleasant affair and the constant threat of The Reaper that can kill ghosts as well as the living creates dramatic tension.

Paranorman doesn’t invoke any sense of tension or dread, nor does it do its parody well, but often crosses over into the macabre, in a bad way.

Confused Metaphysics

The main story of the movie centers around a witch that cursed the town for being killed (supposedly during the time of the Salem Witch trials, judging from the period getup in the flashbacks).

Every year, a person who can talk to the dead needs to read a fairytale (a good night story) at the grave of the witch to make her sleep for another year.

We learn throughout the movie that the witch is in fact a little girl, coincidentally the age of Norman, that was killed by the townsfolk under the accusation of witchcraft. The curse involves bringing her seven accusers back from the dead as Zombies, the purpose being to hurt them in the same way they hurt her, to experience prejudice, fear and death at the hands of the living.

At the end of the movie Norman confronts the witches ghost, talks to her making her remember the good times, and lets her pass on to the blissful afterlife. I’d like to add here that the climax of the movie, the confrontation of the witch, is absolutely stunning, if only the rest of the movie was this good.

The moral of the story is supposed to be that witch-girl was bullied and persecuted for being different, just like Norman is at school, and that she was killed out of fear and prejudice.

At some point in the movie the ghost of Normans grandmother gives him a pep-talk about fear and how being afraid is “alright as long as it doesn’t changes who you are” (what a load of tripe).

Prejudice and fear is bad, mkay.

Here is the point where the writer completely fucked up. It shows that the subject matter of the witch hunts and the Salem Witch Trials was either completely misunderstood, or ignored for the sake of a “cool setting”.

The problem with the Witch Trials isn’t that of prejudice. We don’t consider witch hunts to be barbaric and retarded because it involved the death penalty or because people were persecuted. Hell, we still use the death penalty (well some western countries at least), so its not about the punishment.

We consider it to be barbaric and retarded because WITCHES AND MAGIC AIN’T FUCKING REAL!

The whole subject matter is about the justness of the accusations and the evidential process.

If witches -did- exist, commanded forces warping reality, held the power over life and death, could return the dead back to life, levitate trees, smack little boys against rocks repeatedly via telekinesis (all shown in the movie), then the accusation suddenly makes sense.

Well, of course, it’s still barbaric to sentence them to death, but its -justifiable- fear.

The metaphor just simply breaks down to anything relatable in real life. It’s not about being afraid of the unknown, the nerdy geek that gets bullied at school doesn’t shoot lasers out of his eyes.

It would be like finding out that your neighbor has a nuclear bomb implanted in his brain that might, or might not, go off, and the only way to disarm him is to shoot him dead. A tough moral decision? Yes, but if there isn’t any other way?

In effect, the townspeople that killed the girl were afraid of her, and for -good reason- it turns out, because she wreaks havoc on the town with ancient eldritch magicks.

The whole point of comics like Marvels X-Men, is to show this problem and discuss it. What do we do with people that have great power and can potentially extinguish hundreds of lives at a whim? Paranorman instead creates a narrative situation to force an outcome, fear and prejudice is bad, even though you are justified to be afraid and prejudiced. There are no good witches in the movie, unlike good mutants in X-Men.

Your allegory of puberty isn’t working, when my voice broke I didn’t destroy the town hall!

The revelation of ghosts, heaven and magic entails that some religion was right, that there are threats to the human species that are beyond the control of “normals”. It means that the things like The Inquisition, while an incredibly crude and brutal method, was justified in some way.

This is exactly what I meant in the introduction. The writer wanted to make a point, but didn’t consider the consequences of his setting on his characters and narrative.

I see this more and more often from writers, a complete disregard for world-building and understanding that a setting is more than just a backdrop for your narrative. Your setting has consequences, especially if you introduce metaphysics and non-normative physics into the equation.

Your characters become completely unbelievable and your narrative breaks down.

1000 Checkov’s Guns

I will not even mention the token skeptic attempt of Norman to “prove” his powers to his parents, which should be such an easy task that it requires all of my suspension of disbelief that he couldn’t come up with a better way than telling his sister had photos of boys in her drawer. Look, if you can talk to the dead, your grandma, I’m sure she could tell you something about your father that nobody would know except her, and the father.

Alas, the movie doesn’t even do anything with Normans power to talk to the dead until the very end when he confronts the witch.

The grandmothers ghost mentioning that she would protect him always because its her duty and she can’t move on otherwise? Never brought up again. The grandmother is not present at the confrontation or anywhere else after the half-way point of the movie, in fact, none of the ghosts that were set up are anywhere to be seen.

The town disintegrating into a Silent Hill-esque flashback sequence, never brought up again.

The owl at the school play, never brought up again.

And it goes on.

The movie has almost zero narrative consistency, the second you think you know what is going to happen and where they are going with it, something else happens and the other thing that just happened becomes irrelevant and discarded.

Oh, Normans uncle can talk to the dead as well and wants to teach him about the curse and how to stop it!

Too bad, he died.

Oh he came back as a ghost!

Too bad, he just gave him cryptic bullshit and passed on.

20 minutes of the movie is wasted to go to the Hall Of Records to find the witches grave!

Too bad, they don’t find the record.

A zombie tells them instead!

Terrible Characters

Changes of heart have to be earned, they don’t just spontaneously happen.

The bitching cheerleader-sister bitches at Norman for 80% of the movie, even after they learn that magic, ghosts and witches are real and that Normans powers are real. Then in the last 10 minutes she has a change of heart and defends Norman in front of the mob. There is no bonding, no reconciliation of the siblings over the previous wrongs, no talking it out or understanding.

No, just BAM I’m enlightened now!

Oh, the mob, killing the living dead is bad mkay. Defending your town from the witch is bad. It’s prejudice and bad because nobody tried to talk and understand her and that she was wronged.

Yeah next time there is a shootout in progress try to talk the gunman down.

Also token homo brother at the end? What?

None of the characters make any sense, they are just a random assortment of tropes or broken tropes for the sake of tropieness. Cheerleader bitches, parents don’t believe in their offspring, fat kid is dumb and thats funny, jock is good at sports, bully is really not that tough and afraid of everything, rednecks shoot things. Bleh.

In fact, the movie has no characters beyond Norman and Witch-girl and even those are relatively shallow with their CRAWLING IN MY SKIIIIIIN!!!!

—–

Ultimately Paranorman is narratively a mess, a very pretty mess though.

I am obligated to mention that technically the movie stands out as a landmark in stop-motion animation and the art direction is completely stunning and its praise well deserved.

On the other hand, while I forgot I was watching stop motion, I felt like I was watching CGI, so the achievement has a bitter aftertaste.

Paranorman had all the right elements, but it failed to make them work in its narrative.

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