I see dead people!
It’s not that big a deal though. I mean, usually, they’re just lying there, all dead and stuff by the time I dig them up. Not always, though. Sometimes I get lucky. Sometimes they’re gloriously active with eldritch eternal half-life.
And while I appreciate a good, long dirt nap as much as the next guy, I have to be honest: people are a lot more fun when they’re animated, even if it’s somewhat later in life than traditionally feasible. Or appetizing. But just because a return from the grave entails a few negative side effects — biting, dribbling fluids, the horror, the horror, the horror — that’s no reason for us to discriminate.
Zombies, ghosts, and poltergeists are (the remains of) people, too.
Therefore, we’re going to use this week’s Mind Control Double Feature to take a stand for afterlife rights. We’ll never again set our minds against the undead. Instead, we’ll take the time to get to know them, animate corpse by animate corpse, disembodied limb by disembodied limb.
Are you with me? Say it loud; say it proud:
We ain’t afraid of no ghosts!
Well. Except for Ghost Dog. And Ghost Rider. He’s pretty scary. But we ain’t afraid of all ghosts, indiscriminately, without giving them a chance to teach us important lessons about Jamaican folk music and/or 18th century jurisprudence. That would be rude.
While many I know got gaga over Laika Studio’s Coraline (based on Neil Gaiman’s creepy kids’ tale), I heard considerably less hullaballoo over Laika’s second feature, ParaNorman. It just sort of came and went, drowned in a flash flood of animated films about creatures of the night.
Hotel Transylvania and Frankenweenie got released at the same time as ParaNorman, in that stupid Hollywood tradition of releasing multiple films about niche subjects simultaneously — and just the thought of Adam Sandler doing that same obnoxious voice again kept everyone away from all three films.
But ParaNorman showed up on Netflix and sat — not quite alive, not quite deceased — on my instant queue for ages. I finally watched it. To my shocked surprise, it is exactly what the mad doctor ordered. The film is funny, gross, snarky, and dripping with inspired design. Technically, it kicks serious ass. 3D animation is great and all when done well, but stop motion — which ParaNorman is — sings to a completely different corner of your brain. The corner that should be saved for late-night zombie snacking.
We begin the tale with young Norman, a high school outcast, much like yourself. He sees and converses with dead people. This makes social life a challenge, since bodily remains slump their incorporeal selves all over the damn place. Just, you know, wanting to say hi.
Being half dead is pretty boring. You should try it some time.
Norman’s societal rejection takes place in Blithe Hollow, a small Massachusetts town that’s preparing to mark the 300th anniversary of its famous witch trial. Wouldn’t you know it, Norman ends up having to interface with the newly risen dead in order to save the townsfolk. Even though they think he’s a freak.
That may not sound too exceptional as far as film plots go, but the consideration with which directors Sam Fell and Chris Butler tell the tale (by Butler) breathes new life into the whole production. Get it? I wrote, ‘new life’ about a zombie film! Thankyouverymuch! Don’t forget to tip your waitress!
Anyway, ParaNorman does what every animated film should, but which practically none do. To wit, it builds characters that you recognize as realistic, but which you don’t remember from a slew of other films. All the faces and body types look authentically flawed and miserably human. The production design riffs on modern styles and technologies — to remind us how pathetic most of it is — and winks to just enough tropes of the horror movie genre. It doesn’t cram in as many pop-cultural references as each scene can stand; instead, it displays real affection for its half-dead, drooling subjects. And for the zombies in it, too.
Thing is, in this film, the dead aren’t all one type — a mindless mass of ravenous brain eaters — they’re (the remains of) people, too. While some may be ornery, or a bit loose about the outer layers, most just want what any undead citizen desires: consideration, and maybe some fresh flowers now and then?
Yes. Flowers would be nice.
Kodi Smit-McPhee voices Norman with reluctance and resignation, imbuing the boy with the richness he deserves. The other cast members are without fault, small and large parts alike. These roles are all reflective of who we are as a society in a way that’s amusingly resonant. Actors include Leslie Mann, Anna Kendrick, Casey Affleck, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, and, in the best work it’s done in ages, John Goodman’s tongue.
Not excellent for the youngest of children, particularly those you’re trying to potty train currently. Otherwise: recommended and required.
Ironically, one of ParaNorman‘s competitors for box office attention was Frankenweenie, helmed by once-great director Tim Burton. This is ironic since Burton’s much earlier film, Beetlejuice, is one of the few films that deserves to sweep ParaNorman under the box office rug. Also because ParaNorman seems to be the type of film Burton would have made when he was making good films.
Luckily, Burton hasn’t made a good film since Ed Wood. Wait. I mean unluckily. Whatever. Not that I saw Frankenweenie.
Beetlejuice does more for undead rights than pretty much any other film out there. It puts you smack in the disturbingly malleable skin of recently deceased Barbara and Adam Maitland (Geena Davis/weirdly unpuffy Alec Baldwin). This pair of bucolic lovebirds has, alas, driven off the road near their quaint New England home and found themselves rather dead. In a sad twist, their own damn house gets purchased and then haunted by the living: a ghastly couple, Charles and Delia Deetz (Jeffery Jones/Catherine O’Hara) and their pre-goth goth daughter, Lydia (Winona Ryder, I still have a crush on you. Call me.).
What to do? As if you haven’t seen Beetlejuice. I mean, c’mon. It’s Beetlejuice! Beetlejuice! Beetlejuice!
Oops. That does it. I appear to have summoned the freelance bio-exorcist Beetlejuice, as played by Michael Keaton with all the relish of relish made out of night-crawlers and ghost peppers, which, I suppose, are another ghost I’m afraid of now that I think of it.
In any case: Beetlejuice! Barbara and Adam try to reclaim their home, Beetlejuice tries to abscond with Lydia, and Delia tries to get the spectral shrimp fingers off her face. It all makes sense; trust me for once, damn you.
Here’s the thing, though. Ghosts. They aren’t all bad. Some, like Barbara and Adam, just want some peace and quiet. Others, like that guy who got his head shrunkened, probably only need a really small hat. Is that too much to ask?
Don’t let the miscreant ghosts like Beetlejuice keep you from befriending the spirits that surround you and try to possess your major appliances. Being half dead is boring. Let them have their fun.
Now. Let us all sing Day-O together and calmly await the zombie apocalypse with open arms.