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ParaNorman (free)

  • Chazen Museum of Art 750 University Avenue Madison, WI, 53706 United States (map)

A family-friendly Halloween adventure screens in 35mm. Info

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"There's nothing wrong with being scared, Norman, as long as it doesn't change who you are.” Those words of tenderness are directed at Norman, the quasi-titular character of Studio LAIKA’s 2012 stop-motion offering, ParaNorman. Norman’s grandmother is responsible for the sage advice. The only problem? His grandmother (Elaine Stritch) has been dead for some time. Norman, it seems, can speak to the spectres of souls who never truly disappeared.

Norman, for his part, doesn’t shy away from his gift and his entire small town treats him with a noticeable apprehension. He’s an outcast in the land of the living and appreciated by the ghosts littering the landscape. All of these details are laid early, working in tandem with a seemingly precarious family dynamic (Norman’s father has a fiery temperament, leaving his mother to play the role of delicate extinguisher). In these fractures and conflicts, the film sets the stage for a surprisingly moving parable.

Writer-director Chris Butler (and co-director Sam Fell) navigate their film’s tonality with refinement, allowing a perfect marriage of sci-fi, classic horror, magic realism, drama, and black comedy to anchor an animated film that keeps both adults and children very much in mind. At multiple points throughout its course, ParaNorman points out that the line of division between adulthood and childhood is tenuous, only becoming obvious with the gift—or burden—of hindsight.    

A stellar cast including John Goodman, Anna Kendrick, Casey Affleck, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, and Kodi Smit-McPhee proves to be very game for the film’s fantastical sensibilities, imbuing each of their characters with both slapdash absurdity and grounded humanity. While the film’s joyride of a first half plays to the former quality, the unexpected poignancy of the film’s second half is dominated by the latter (aided in no small part by the understated score work of the incomparable Jon Brion).

Without spoiling too much of the film’s zombie-focused central movement, parents considering taking their children should take note of a few things: the film’s not afraid of genuinely dark subject matter—death is confronted from multiple angles—and there are scenes later on in the film that are truly unnerving. One sequence in particular is among the most harrowing of its PG contemporaries and, at one point, finds Norman being slammed repeatedly into the base of a tree as a tragic figure tries to finish him off as a means of avoiding her own demons. Additionally, The Crucible is a major point of reference and the film’s driven by a palpable sense of sadness that informs the longing of its characters;. longing for understanding, longing to make things right, longing for revenge, longing for lost ones, and longing for normalcy.

On the surface, ParaNorman looked like a vehicle for well-intentioned nostalgia but cuts far deeper. Underneath the John Carpenter references, irreverent humor, and Halloween trappings, there’s a genuine heart driving these ball-and-socket armatures. While there are truly effective frights in store that are perfect for the season, ParaNorman’s clear-eyed resolve, empathy, and warmth are what leave a lasting impression. For all the tricks it pulls, ParaNorman’s one hell of a treat. It screens here in a 35mm print as part of a collaborative series from UW Cinematheque and the Chicago Film Society. —Steven Spoerl